What’s Old Is New
October 25, 2016
The architectural press in New York has been abuzz with news of Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a new Penn Station in the old Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue. I haven’t weighed in on this yet, wanting to see where others have stood. My colleague Witold Rybszynski likes what he sees in both the post office renovation and the add-on plan to remake Madison Square Garden into another transit station. Michael Kimmelman has also made his positive opinions known in the New York Times.
Preservationists like me still lament the loss of the greatest train station ever built in America, but we can’t bring back the dead. Buildings do have lives, and McKim’s masterpiece can’t be revived in its entirety. Parts of the old station remain underground, however, and it makes sense to re-use and polish them up when the new stations are built.
The post office is a good Beaux Arts building, also by McKim, Mead & White. The published renovation plans are plain vanilla and will impress only in comparison to the horrible underground station they will replace. New York State officials declined to hire a great classical architect like Allan Greenberg or Robert Stern to make the “alterations” to the building. That is a pity, but it is to be expected from cautious public officials. At least it appears that developers may have some leeway in making their own decisions.
The prospect of using part of Madison Square Garden is also intriguing. Simply tearing off the roof and filling the void doesn’t strike me as very clever, especially with the post office facing the garden on Eighth Avenue. What about another good classical building that creates a foil? There are also plans afoot with the Port Authority to create a new bus station with a tie-in to the Lincoln Tunnel, so it makes sense for the city to coordinate both mega-projects.
During the Bloomberg administration a number of high profile projects were floated, some of which came to fruition. The best was the High Line; the worst was Freedom Tower. It looks as if the city will have a chance to surpass those developments in the next decades. It should look carefully at the best buildings built during the Progressive Era, most of which were classical, and not make the kind of mistake it made with the current Madison Square Garden, one of the worst buildings in New York.