One of New York's architectural treasures, the 1913 McKim, Mead & White General Post Office (officially the James A. Farley Post Office), awaits transformation into the future Pennsylvania Station, to be named in honor of the former New York senator who championed the project, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
A bit of history first: The extraordinary former Pennsylvania Station designed by McKim, Mead & White, just across Eighth Avenue from the General Post Office, was torn down in 1964, much to the dismay of New Yorkers who lost an architectural treasure. The underground station that replaced it has been under continuous renovation since it was built, and has never been particularly accessible or noteworthy. "One entered the city like a god," the famous architectural historian Vincent Scully, wrote of New York's original Pennsylvania Station. "One scuttles in now like a rat."
The post office was constructed after purchasing the land from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1913. Given the significance of both railroads and postal revenue in early 20th-century America, it made good sense to have these two important hubs facing each other across a broad avenue.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when this enormous space became not entirely needed by a postal service that had shifted much of its delivery methods to truck transport. The post office had already shifted much of its sorting to the nearby Morgan General Mail Facility, and the General Post Office moreover did not exactly make the best use of existing space. You'll notice this if you poke around a bit or walk around the entire exterior and peep in the windows.
If you tour the present post office, you will be astounded by the exterior with its grand facade declaring "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor glom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," which Manhattan residents know to be true from the 24-hour retail and sorting operations at the facility. Pause to admire the Corinthian columns and grand staircase before entering, whereupon you notice the fascinating ceiling plastered with stunning seals of nations. Here the wonder stops, for the equipment and construction methods of the modern postal service has made much of the lobby look rather sad, when not hideous. From time to time, postal exhibits in a room off the lobby range from fascinating to charming to rather dumpy.
The late Senator Moynihan championed a revitalization project that would envision rail activity returning to a worthy 21st-century transportation hub, with a large naturally-lit glass enclosed atrium, as well as the world's largest media wall. Postal sorting operations would transfer to the Morgan facility, and the post office would retain a small retail presence. The late Senator Moynihan's daughter Maura formed the Moynihan Station Citizens Group in 2003, committed to the vision of the senator to create this new train station for New York City worthy of the people of New York.
Moynihan Station was designed by the celebrated architect, David Childs, and contracts were initially awarded, although construction has yet to begin. The most active transportation hub in the United States, the current underground Penn Station was never designed to handle the current daily traffic of 700,000 passengers. Working with Governor Pataki, Senator Schumer, Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, Senator Clinton and President Clinton as well as many others, Senator Moynihan championed and then secured funding for this new station during his final years in the United States Senate. But the project involves the coordination of New York State, the US Postal Service, Amtrak, the Federal Government, the City of New York and others, which is always a complicated Herculean task in New York City.
General Post Office / Moynihan Station is located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Once a mixed, low-income neighborhood on the West Side, Chelsea has become a focal point for artists and galleries. It has a wide reputation as Manhattan's gay mecca, and while that has historically been true, rising acceptance of the gay lifestyle—and soaring rents—has led to a dissipation of the community in the neighborhood. These days, Chelsea is, very simply, a bastion of affluence more than any other social status, with the conversion of many apartment buildings to condos and co-ops and the on-rush of multimillion-dollar brownstones and lofts. In the ever-northward shift of Manhattan's masses, the high prices of Greenwich Village and Christopher Street area (which has boasted a large LGBT community since the 1960s) led many to head north to Chelsea in the late 1980s. In that migration, many have already moved on from Chelsea to the northern climes of Hell's Kitchen and Washington Heights, or east to Brooklyn. While Eighth Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets formerly had one of New York’s highest concentrations of gay-operated restaurants, stores, cafes, the population transfer changed the demographics once again—you'll find much higher concentrations in Hell's Kitchen nowadays. The Chelsea art scene blossomed thanks to the conversion of garages and warehouses between Tenth and Twelfth Avenues, and likely will become a victim of its own success. What SoHo and the 57th Street area lost in stature has been Chelsea’s gain, and almost all the well-established flagship galleries make Chelsea their base. How did it all begin? In 1987, the Dia Center for the Arts—later known as Dia: Chelsea—became one of the pioneers in the area, establishing its main exhibition facility on West 22nd Street. Ironically, after opening its flagship museum Dia: Beacon upstate, it was left without a Manhattan presence. Plans to move down to Greenwich Village and abut the new High Line elevated park were scuttled, and the Whitney instead grabbed the valuable tract that once appealed to Dia. Of course, the High Line further increased property values, thus begetting additional high-rises between Tenth Avenue and West Street, which in turn brought in starchitects like Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, whose creations can be seen soaring from the earth along West Street. You can learn more about these in our new architecture of Manhattan walking tour. While the ethnic diversity of Chelsea was once truly enviable, the neighborhood still remains one of only a few places where housing ranges from high-rise public housing projects to single-family brownstones to new glass condominiums—even on the same block! Some of Manhattan’s most affordable rent-stabilized apartments can be found between Seventh and Ninth Avenues. The historic district has some fine examples of nineteenth-century city dwellings, and small gardens and flowering trees abound. If you think the grounds of General Theological Seminary (440 West 21st Street) look familiar, that's because it is frequently functions as a set for the TV show Law & Order! Even seminaries have to make money, and thus G.T.S. (as it's known) demolished its former entrance on Ninth Avenue to make way for (what else?) luxury condominiums. At its Tenth Avenue entrance, G.T.S. created one of Manhattan's most charming niche hotels, the Desmond Tutu Center, named after the great South African archbishop. Speaking of hotels, Chelsea has no shortage of great places to stay and to eat. On Tenth Avenue you'll find the renowned tapas of Tia Pol and its offshoot El Quinto Pino just two blocks away. There's the upscale Cookshop nearby, and further south on Tenth Avenue you'll find the Iron Chef's Morimoto at the great Chelsea Market, also home to Buddakan on the Ninth Avenue side.
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