Hosannas welcomed the recent unveiling of the brand new Moynihan Train Hall across from Penn Station in Manhattan. But who knows or cares about the mundane upgrade that takes place at Newark Penn Station across the river?
We do it.
It was the legendary McKim, Mead & White architecture firm that designed both Penn Stations – the one in Newark and the original in New York. Together they define stylistic whiplash. The New York station, which opened in 1910, embodied the empire. It was stately and monumental and did not refer too subtly to the Roman baths of Caracalla. We all cried it was over, and rightly so, even though most of us have only seen it through the same black and white photos over and over again.
Then came Newark Penn Station in 1935. The architects threw away their neoclassical playbook and became modern. The boast of Art Deco details is reflected everywhere from jazzy sign fonts to stainless steel entrances with ornate metalwork to 800 pound chandeliers with the zodiac signs – confident flourishes, movement, and a very American sense of style convey.
Not only is the main waiting hall 30 meters high, it also features a display that is a transpo nerd’s delight: carved stone medallions depicting the history of American travel. It starts with Indians in a canoe, travels by clipper ship and stagecoach and ends with trains, planes and cars. Above it is a light blue blanket described on an Amtrak blog as follows: “There is a wide band of gilded wavy lines running along its length that convey the sense of movement that is so important in Art Deco design.”
Courtesy NJ Transit
The $ 190 million appreciation of these items, as well as more mundane issues like bathrooms and lighting, have begun. David Abeles, General Superintendent of NJ Transit Train Stations, recently walked through the train station with WNYC / Gothamist pointing out ongoing fixes, starting with the freshly cleaned and shiny terrazzo floors. “When the floors glow, people are impressed,” he said.
Numerous further improvements are planned for the next five years: upgrades of the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, new tiles, better drainage of the bus lanes and a thorough cleaning of the limestone facade of the station. There’s even a plan in place to make the station’s sparse signage easier to read.
Newark Penn Station is the largest of NJ Transit’s 153 passenger facilities and the eighth largest train station in North America. “It’s our main stop and literally an intersection,” Abeles said. It houses Amtrak traffic, the PATH train, and the agency’s commuter rails. Before Covid, 90,000 people streamed through Newark Penn Station on weekdays – a number that is still down 80 percent.
After Abeles gave up those dismal statistics, he was quick to talk about aesthetics again.
Courtesy NJ Transit
“Newark Penn Station, it’s under the radar, but it’s spectacular in itself,” he said while standing near the seating area of the waiting room that was taped in preparation for the repair of its long, curved wooden benches. “And if you look outside, there are giant rose granite arches, beautifully carved, built the size that the Pennsylvania Railroad wore in the 1930s.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad had acquired 600 competing lines by the completion of the construction of Newark Penn Station in 1935, making it the largest company in the world. This explains why, confusingly, both of the major train stations in Newark and New York were referred to as “Penn Station”. Because it could.
Jim O’Grady / Gothamist / WNYC
“If it was a Pennsylvania Railroad station in a major city, it was called Penn Station,” said Abeles. However, by the 1970s, the railroad had been brought to its knees and its fortunes were tarnished by the above-mentioned planes and automobiles. Because of this, I suggested that NJ Transit rename the place after a New Jersey resident like Bruce Springsteen or Queen Latifah. Or perhaps passengers would like to hear this announcement as they travel east on the Gladstone Line: “Ladies and gentlemen, the train is now arriving at Newark’s ‘The Situation’ station.”
Yes? No? Throw up?
“I can definitely tell my superiors,” said Abeles. “We’ll see where this leads.”