The New Moynihan Train Hall, and the Art Deco Clock at the Center of It

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Every year, millions of people visit New York City and have life changing, transformative experiences. And on a daily basis, thousands upon thousands of commuters head to the city to ply their trade from near and far. They do this over, and over, and over again, and while the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed some of that activity, as the vaccine rolls out and a “normal” future seems to be on the horizon, everyone anticipates that the trains funneling individuals who are bright eyed and haggard in equal measure will soon be full again. And in 2021, for the first time in decades, stepping off the Amtrak or LIRR will involve an entirely new sensory experience. Many travelers are used to being welcomed to Midtown by Pennsylvania Station, which is by any measure one of the worst places in the world. The new Moynihan Train Hall, an extension of Penn Station just across the street in the old James A Farley postal building, is the new rallying point for many Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road lines, and its high ceilings, modern art displays, and, well, apparent cleanliness, are poised to offer a dramatically different experience for those waiting for trains in the new facility. There’s also the matter of the beautiful clock at the center of it all. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Peter Pennoyer, the architect behind the clock, a few questions about its creation. 

Image courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects
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Train station clocks are a rabbit hole within horology that entirely consumes some enthusiasts, just as chronographs, or Rolex might. We’ve covered topics adjacent to train station clocks from time to time, and of course the Ball Watch Company is devoted in part to producing watches modeled after pocket watches used by railway operators to ensure trains run smoothly and on time, so the heritage of timekeepers used for the rails is well understood by many. But these railway clocks, and public clocks more generally, are certainly remnants of an earlier time. That makes examining notable new clocks all the more worthwhile, because building a public clock for the 21st century is inherently intentional and artful, as opposed to something born out of utility. 

Peter Pennoyer is the Principal Partner of Peter Pennoyer Architects (PPA), and has served the architectural community for years as a writer (he’s the author of five books on architecture) and teacher (at NYU). He has deep roots in New York City, and as an architect works at the intersection of New York’s professional, government, and neighborhood groups to create spaces that reflect the fabric and history of the city itself, serving its residents and visitors responsibly. 

PPA’s design for the Moynihan Train Hall clock was the winner of a juried competition sponsored by the Governor’s office through the Empire State Development Corporation. PPA beat out four other firms, and won with a design based largely on the Jazz Age and Art Deco skyscrapers. Think of the Chrysler Building in clock form, and you have a fairly good idea of the aesthetic that Pennoyer was going for here. This is fitting, as the Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, is a product of what many consider to be the golden age of American rail travel, particularly in New York. The ribbed case of the clock, seen from all four sides, is the dominant design characteristic and an unmistakable Deco detail. 

Image courtesy State of New York

The clock measures 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and is suspended 25 feet off the Moynihan Train Hall floor, which is filled with natural light during the day thanks to the impressive skylight that makes up the entirety of the vaulted ceiling. Pennoyer used important railway clocks from history as a guide in his design. “We looked at the best railway clocks and found many characteristics that we emulated,” he says. “Legibility, four faces, decorative impact and robust form all seemed important.” The typeface chosen was inspired by railroad signage from the 1930s, further tying the clock to railway and New York history. 

Part of an architect’s job is to understand the space they’re designing in. The Farley building has a long history and was familiar to Pennoyer through his work with the Municipal Art Society, where he sat on the Board in the late 90s. “I was involved in the effort to encourage the federal government to support the project to convert the Farley Post Office into a new Penn Station,” he told me, and he toured the old mail sorting room that originally occupied the space. Pennoyer explained to me that unlike the steel structure of the original Penn Station, which was designed to evoke the vaults of Roman architecture, the Moynihan Train Hall lacks any historical references, which allowed Pennoyer to create a more streamlined, complementary design for the clock, while still suggesting some key Art Deco motifs.  

Image courtesy State of New York
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While there has been a movement to expand and renovate Penn Station for years, the clock project itself had a surprisingly short timeframe, and in a year shaped by the pandemic, it’s frankly impressive that it was completed successfully. The timeframe was compressed, to the say the least. The design was approved in June of 2020, with an expected delivery date in December. Pennoyer credits close collaboration with his partners, and the flexibility of New York’s government, in getting everything completed in such a short span of time. 

Covid-19 restrictions also complicated matters during the sampling and mockup phase of the build. Creative solutions, at times, were necessary. “To be sure that the numbers on the clock face would be legible from the edges of the train hall,” Pennoyer told me, “Steven Worthington, the lead designer at PPA, printed out a section of the clock at full scale, hung it from his apartment window and checked the size from a street corner below.” 

Image courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects
Image courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects

A clock of this size, in such a dramatic setting, is likely to be noticed and appreciated by many who wouldn’t otherwise pay much attention to a public clock, glued as we all are to our phones and devices. Watch lovers, of course, are predisposed to enjoying something like this, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Pennoyer counts himself among us. When I asked him about watches that are meaningful to him, he told me that his daily wearer is an IWC Fliegerchronograph, which strikes me a particularly well proportioned and versatile chronograph with a clearly defined and classic style. Pennoyer’s taste has range, though, as he’s also interested in the Bulova Accutron Spaceview, a decidedly more modern and altogether different kind of watch. 

Coming out of such a difficult year, the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall has an outsized impact for New Yorkers and commuters that it might not have in a normal year. It seems to represent a type of resilience, and a throwback to an earlier time in New York’s history. Some believe that the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station, an architectural icon to many and as classic a train station that has ever existed in the United States, was an egregious and thoughtless act, and that the suffering of waiting endlessly for a train in the new Penn Station, built in the dingy bowels of Madison Square Garden, was some kind of perverse penance for crimes against architecture. The use of the Farley building in a Penn Station expansion was the brainchild of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the hall’s namesake and a New York Senator, who had championed the idea for years before it was seriously considered. 

Image Courtesy State of New York
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That dreaded experience of waiting for your train to be called in the cramped, crowded, low ceilinged dungeon that is Penn Station is going to change for many with the Moynihan Train Hall, and the significance isn’t lost on Peter Pennoyer. “I am thrilled to have my firm contribute to a public space,” says Pennoyer. “The Moynihan Train Hall is especially meaningful for me as I recall being in this room in the late 90s hearing President Clinton deliver a compelling speech in support of Senator Moynihan’s vision.”

As someone who regularly commutes to New York when not in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been very much looking forward to returning to the city just as soon as it’s deemed safe enough to travel. I’m not going to lie – the thought of making my way through Penn Station in a sea of humanity has been the cause of some anxiety in this Covid period. I think for many of us who love New York without actually living in it, the new Moynihan Train Hall is going to be incredibly meaningful once we make our return, and just like understanding the history behind the watches we wear informs our experience with them and deepens our bonds to these material objects, having an understanding of the story behind this clock is going to create emotional ties and meaning. For once, I’m looking forward to a Penn Station arrival. 

Banner Image Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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