Before she was dean of the Weitzman School, from 2008 to 2016, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Marilyn Jordan Taylor was an architect and partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working on a range of transportation projects from international airports around the world to regional train stations and subway projects in the U.S. As part of her practice, Taylor led the SOM design team working on all 23 railroad stations along the Northeast Corridor, a highly-traveled passenger rail route between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The biggest by far was Pennsylvania Station’s new Moynihan Train Hall, in New York, a dramatic addition to Penn Station which officially opened on New Year’s Day 2021.
Infrastructure projects are often described by the time it takes to build them, and the expansion of New York’s Pennsylvania Station was no exception. To address the decades of disrepair and overcrowding, SOM proposed a design that included a new train hall in the James A. Farley Building, an historic post office built as part of the 1913 Pennsylvania Station, when trains were the primary mode for distributing U.S. Mail. Despite the support of President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the project stalled for more than a decade until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo revived it, as a first step in a much larger project to expand Penn Station for the increasing growth in regional and commuter rail ridership. The new train hall is named for Senator Moynihan, the project’s most essential champion.
In this interview, Taylor talks about her experience with this exceptional, multi-decade project, working with Weitzman students on subway, rail and airport projects, and the prospects for more infrastructure investment in the U.S. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The construction and demolition of the original Penn Station looms so large in the history of New York City and of transit planning and historic preservation. How did that influence your approach to Moynihan Hall?
I never saw the late, great Pennsylvania Station. It opened in 1913 and was demolished in 1963. The original ticketing hall was styled after the classical Baths of Caracalla in Rome, while the train hall was a soaring space of steel and glass, filled with daylight that guided passengers to the train platforms (70’ below grade) where they boarded their long-distance trains. It was heroic. It really was heroic.
As we began designing spaces for the 21st century, there was a strong contingent of advocates who said the answer was to rebuild it to what it once was. And of course, we checked with Senator Moynihan, and said we understood that the station’s history was important, but that didn’t make sense to do that. The senator quickly agreed. We understood that our responsibility was not to bring back that station, sadly demolished, but to bring back the extraordinary sense of dignity and civic pride it offered to all those travelling there.
It was a dream project, intended to improve the lives of travelers and commuters whose experience was trudging through low-ceiling corridors with little information about how to get up from the platforms to the streets. We were at 60-percent design development, and we’d been through all the environmental approvals, everything was moving forward, when in June 2001 we got the cost estimate back: on a $750 million project, we were $40 million over. And then at the end of that summer, 9/11 happened, and the project was stalled, perhaps permanently. The fact that Moynihan Hall went ahead is because of Governor Cuomo and his team. What I learned through my decades of working on train stations and airports and subway systems is that transportation agencies get a lot of criticism, but within those entities are people who really love the railroad, love the airport, want to serve the people, want to get the project done, and spend decades of their life doing it.
You spent a lot of time working on other inter-city stations between Washington and Boston. How different is Moynihan Hall from the other ones you did?
There is a lot of underground work that needs to be done to support a project like Penn Station and its Moynihan Station. One of the reasons we were able to pull off the Farley Building reconfiguration is that it was no longer being used for sorting and distributing mail, leaving vast vacant areas for construction. But we were still working over and beside the operations of three railroad systems. When you turn off power down there, you turn off power to all tracks. It’s a lot of tracks, so you basically have to work from about two o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the morning and then you turn the power back on again.
Preservation, rebuilding the long-term trusses—these are big, muscular, expensive items, but they’re what you need to have when you have tracks sitting below a building. You need to deploy long spans that cross the tracks and the platforms. Clear paths of circulation and orientation is key. So it the ability to stop for a moment, to greet or say goodbye, to experience the quality and character of these large public spaces. To get it done, we needed to introduce natural light, to use high-quality, durable materials simply. There are a lot of logistical issues, and then of course getting the historic facade back to what it should look like, almost as if we’d never touched it. All of those things are important, and particularly in urban settings, they are costly.
Are there things that you learned here that stations in smaller cities with lower budgets and fewer champions can do?
It wasn’t a named coalition, but New York was able to build the support of a lot of different communities. And it became so imperative something had to be done that finally the governor stood up and said “OK, I’m going to do it.” Back in the old days, the government and Amtrak fought, but this time Amtrak was very much a cooperating party, partly because of a New Jersey leader, Anthony Coscia—once the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who then moved on to chair the board of Amtrak.
Projects that serve people who are excited, late, tired, hungry, worried, happy are so rewarding. At the beginning of the design phases, you’re dreaming, “Wow, I get to do this project.” And then you just feel like you’re walking through mud, literally, down in the basements. And then you realize that the new structures are coming into place, the finish materials are being installed, the artwork is bringing some magic, and the people who bring life to the building are about to arrive. It’s the experience of travelers, greeters, commuters, workers that give this train hall—and all well-designed transportation spaces – a sense of convenience and inclusion.
“There are people of vision who are willing to find a way to take on these big problems, but they have to pick their moment carefully and strategically.”
Some people are hoping that with the new administration in the White House and the way politics has evolved in the last couple years, that the U.S. could turn a corner on its approach to rail travel in general. Do you have any sense that that could happen?
The opportunity is here. Twelve years ago, just after his election as President, Barack Obama wanted a national railroad plan, with high-speed rail as part of a recovery package. We all know that anything Obama wanted went on the “No” list. But Joe Biden fought for it continuously, partly because he was Amtrak Joe and rode the train between Washington D.C. and Wilmington Delaware every day. We met with Senator Biden and later Vice President Biden, feeling buoyed by his commitment to infrastructure, the sense of community it creates, and the jobs that it generates. 2021 may be the year we’ve waited for.
When I came to Penn, [Emeritus Professor of Practice] Bob Yaro and I created a series of studios to propose and advocate high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. We wanted to support the need for infrastructure and put high-speed passenger back on the table even though the Obama administration probably wasn’t going to be able to get it all done. Together, Bob and I assembled a team of professional advisors to work with our students to make the case for high-speed rail. We realized that the studio had done incredible, professional-level work. We reached out to Rina Cutler (at that time Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, later she became senior director for major stations, planning and development at Amtrak.) We asked to make a presentation to her. And she said, “I’m too busy, unless you want to come in on Saturday morning.” Fifteen students and two professors came to City Hall, and the students give an intriguing presentation. Rina says, “I’m going to tell the governor.” (At the time, Ed Rendell was Governor of Pennsylvania.) She told him, “You’ve got to see this.” And about a month later, I received a phone call with the governor’s voice saying, “I’m coming to Philadelphia. I have to go to a funeral. I have 30 minutes. Can you get your students there tomorrow to meet me?” And I said, “Yes, governor, I think we can.”
We showed him the proposal, and he picked up the phone and said, “Hey Joe, Joe, you gotta see these kids. You gotta see what these kids have done.” Soon it was September—I can’t believe any of this happened—and I get a phone call saying, “Is this Marilyn Taylor? The White House is calling.” I almost hung up. It can’t be. “The vice president hopes that you and your students can be here on the 17th of September.” And, of course, they had all graduated, but everyone came back; there might have been one who couldn’t make it. We had a half an hour with Joe Biden. He liked it so much he called (former Pennsylvania Senator) Arlen Specter in to hear about it, too.
All of this to say that there are people of vision who are willing to find a way to take on these big problems, but they have to pick their moment carefully and strategically. And there are moments when we succeed. Infrastructure isn’t just stimulus and jobs. It also brings resilience, equity, inclusion—all of those things that we need to do if we want to build greater equity across the country for everybody. So now you see why I never went back to doing tall office buildings after that.
Anything else you want to add?
Back in the late 1990s, when Senator Moynihan learned that SOM had been advised to restart the Penn Station project, I got a phone call from him. I can’t mimic the way he talked, but he said, “Marilyn, is it done yet?” I said, “Senator, yes, we’re delighted, it’s done, we have the contract.” And he said, “No, you have to get designing, you have to get it done.” He went silent for 30 seconds, then he said, “This project is a fat dolphin swimming in a sea of sharks. You must make it inevitable.”
For a long time it didn’t feel inevitable. But something about the way the senator said it—not just to me but also to others—made it impossible for those of us in his network to let go. We had to get it done. People used to ask me what’s the biggest regret I’ve had in my professional life, and for years it was that I didn’t get Moynihan Station done. But it did get done, and now it opens a new challenge: the potential to rebuild the Hudson Rail Tunnels, to expand the station’s tracks and platforms, to create another inspiring station hall that makes travel safe, enjoyable, exciting, welcoming, and dignifying. And thus, to contribute to a just recovery and an equitable future.
Editor's Note: RPA’s January 2021 virtual benefit celebrated the opening of the Moynihan Train Station. The celebration and video salute Polly Trottenberg for her success as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and her appointment to Biden’s Department of Transportation as well as Peggy Shepard for her many decides advocating for environmental justice.