New York’s $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall made its grand debut at the turn of the new year, bringing with it plenty of reasons for art lovers to take notice. Adding breathing room to the subterranean dungeon that is Penn Station, the new extension boasts 92-foot-high ceilings, a canopy of skylights, a large clock and art installations from Kehinde Wiley, Stan Douglas and Elmgreen & Dragset.
The 255,500-square-foot transit hub arrives after decades of debate over a proposal by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the building’s namesake, to utilize the Beaux-Arts style James A. Farley post office building across 8th Avenue from Penn Station as an extension for commuting. Designed by McKim, Mead & White — the same architects behind the original Penn Station, demolished in 1963 — the Farley building holds up a mirror through time to catch a glimpse of the once-alluring train depot.
“We built this as a statement of who we are, and who we aspire to be,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who championed the massive project, said in a statement. “Is it grand? Yes. Is it bold? Yes, because that is the spirit of New York and that is the statement we want to make to our visitors, to our children and to future generations. As dark as 2020 has been, this new hall will bring the light, literally and figuratively, for everyone who visits this great city.”
Art, it could be said, is built into the fabric of this new vision. Upon entering the building on 33rd Street, passengers who look up to the ceiling will find a joyful, hand-painted, stained glass triptych by Wiley. The permanent back-lit installation, entitled “Go,” recalls European frescoes and centers Black New Yorkers in motion — dancing, reaching and flying against a backdrop of clouds, pigeons and a plane.
Those who arrive through the 31st Street entrance do so under a 30,000-pound cityscape that drips down from the ceiling. Designed by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, collectively known as Elmgreen & Dragset, “The Hive” boasts 91 buildings set aglow by 72,000 LED lights. A nod to New York City’s relentless energy, the lights never dim, but rather stay on day-in and day-out.
Douglas’ photographic panels, collectively titled “Penn Station’s Half Century,” further fuses the Penn Station’s history into the newly conceived train hall. The work creates a collage of live actors photographed in period costumes with a digital recreation of the original Pennsylvania Station. The scenes depict “forgotten” moments in New York history, snippets that passengers can mull over while sitting next to one of the four 22-foot-long panels in the station’s ticketed waiting room, located just off the main concourse.
The art installations were commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund.
“Nothing could be more fitting for a great metropolitan transit hub than three astonishing works of art that stop us in our tracks. Each one dazzles with its sheer beauty, epic scale, and technical mastery,” Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of Public Art Fund, said in a statement. “Each artist has thought deeply about the history, context, significance and future of this newly transformed place, creating brilliantly innovative works of art that allow us to see ourselves — past, present and future — in a truly civic space.”
According to the project’s architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the building expands the total concourse available at Penn Station by 50%, while restoring the “grandeur that was lost with the demolition of the original Penn Station half a century ago.” Critics note that the building primarily serves Amtrak and, to a lesser degree, Long Island Rail Road commuters, with subway and New Jersey Transit riders still relegated to the old Penn Station. Critics have also noted that the hall’s lack of public seating outside of ticketed areas and its closure between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. are unwelcoming to those who are unhoused.
Earlier this week, Cuomo announced plans to extend the High Line to the Moynihan Train Hall, allowing pedestrians a straight-path uninhibited by traffic to the station from the parkway. The connector, estimated to cost $60 million, would extend the existing High Line in an L-shape east from 10th Avenue and 30th Street in Manhattan to the new hub.
“This will be the most ambitious redevelopment that New York City has seen in decades,” Cuomo said in a statement. “The beautiful Moynihan Train Hall is open, the renovation of Penn Station and this High Line extension project begin this year. This connection is part of a district-wide redevelopment of the West Side that will jumpstart the private market in a post-COVID world.”
Top Image: "Go," Kehinde Wiley. Photographer: Nicholas Knight. Image courtesy of the artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund.