The Other ‘Penn Station’ Readies for Its Makeover

New Jersey is spending $190 million to revitalize Newark’s historic art deco Penn Station. One of the busiest transit hubs in the country will be restored after nearly 90 years of service.

Passengers standing on busy train platform in Newark, New Jersey.
Newark’s transit hub is the seventh-busiest train station in the U.S. (Photos: David Kidd)
David Kidd/Governing
Many have lamented the loss of New York City’s iconic steel and stone Penn Station. The neoclassical edifice was designed by the pre-eminent firm of McKim, Mead and White and built in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world at its peak. Felled by the wrecking ball in 1963, the station’s soulless subterranean replacement is much unloved. 

But there is another Penn Station, just a 16-minute train trip away, in New Jersey. The Newark Penn Station was also built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and also designed by McKim, Mead and White. But unlike its departed cousin across the Hudson River, it is still in use today, and one of the busiest transit hubs in the country. Opened during the Great Depression, Newark’s station is long overdue for refurbishment. But help is on the way. A recently announced plan to invest millions of dollars in the aging station is expected not only to improve transit, but revitalize downtown Newark as well.

The investment is needed. In 2019, nearly 732,000 intercity passengers used the station, a seven-year high, according to Amtrak. It is also served by Newark’s light rail system, the state’s commuter rail system NJ Transit and a regional rapid transit system known as PATH. Newark’s Penn Station is also the hub for 33 local and regional bus lines.

Eighty-six years ago this month, in the depths of the Great Depression, Martin W. Clement, vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, formally presented the new Pennsylvania Station to Newark Mayor Meyer C. Ellenstein. A printed program passed out at the commemoration confirmed the importance of rail service to the city. “Civic growth goes hand in hand with rail transportation. Courage can found a city. Vision can expand it. But only transportation can populate it, feed it and make it commercially important.”

A special train, “one of the most luxurious passenger trains ever assembled by an American railroad,” was brought in for the occasion and offered for inspection. It included eight different types of Pullman cars, “combining every known comfort, convenience and luxury for travelers.” Several other Pennsylvania Railroad cars were also made available as well as a Class GG1 locomotive, “the most powerful electric streamlined engine in the world.” 

Even with the impressive display of rolling stock, it was the new, modern station that everyone had come to see. While New York’s Penn Station mimicked the architecture of ancient Rome, Newark’s version is a prime example of art deco design, with surfaces of sleek geometric shapes and long unbroken lines that evoke speed and motion. The building’s polished aluminum trim and decoration are a bow to the modern age of machines and industry. 

This past December, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to immediately commit $30 million to the restoration and modernization of Newark’s long-neglected station, with another $160 million to follow over the next five years. The first work to be done will focus on restoration and updates to the exterior and main waiting room. 

Outside, the grey Indiana limestone walls will get a thorough cleaning and repair as needed. Inside, brighter and more efficient lighting will be installed, restrooms modernized, and air handling brought up to date. Two of the original, classic wood benches have already been refinished and would be in use today if not for COVID-related restrictions currently in place. Plans also call for updating the station’s well-worn infrastructure, as well as adding user amenities for the 50,000 passengers who pass through the station daily. 

 

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The main waiting room still looks much as it did in 1935. During the day, natural light fills the room through 30-foot-tall windows, illuminating walls covered with rose yellow travertine and acoustic material. Air is circulated from slots in the ceiling and through grills in the benches below.


 
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Four large globe chandeliers hang high overhead in the waiting room. Made of opal glass and surrounded by a white-bronze ring depicting signs of the zodiac, each of the orbs weighs 800 pounds and is five feet in diameter. The ceiling, gently curved and covered in blue acoustic tiles with undulating bronze accents, was revealed during an earlier restoration almost three decades ago. 

 
 
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 Still intact after nearly 90 years of daily use, the waiting room floor is pink terrazzo with black and yellow floral motifs, outlined by embedded brass strips.


 
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Constructed of grey walnut, the waiting room benches feature inlaid aluminum decoration including a representation of the Pennsylvania Railroad logo and are “numbered, to facilitate meeting,” according to the opening-day program. Two of the benches have already undergone restoration.


 
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Aluminum decorations are everywhere in the station, most prominently surrounding windows and doors, both inside and out. Common in art deco design, stylized foliage, flowers and stars coexist with the geometric patterns surrounding the main waiting room’s Market Street entrance.


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Decorative plaques, tracing the evolution of travel in America, are mounted high on the 46-foot walls of the main waiting room. Along with this representation of a Native American on horseback, other examples include a clipper ship, stagecoach, steam locomotive and airplane. 

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Seen by many as an incongruous intrusion on the art deco edifice, a pedestrian bridge was added in 1972, connecting the station with a nearby hotel and office complex. 


 

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Waiting rooms along the train platform are made of aluminum, complete with art deco design flourishes.


 
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Providing additional illumination and showing years of neglect, the train shed’s skylights and support structure were designed to impart a sense of industrial strength and power. 

 
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Adjacent to the station and built at the same time, the 230-foot, six-track Dock Bridge carries Amtrak and commuter trains over the Passaic River on their way to New York City. Rarely raised in the past five years, the span still needs to be tested periodically, resulting in several hours of delays. Amtrak, the bridge’s owner, has requested that the bridge be permanently kept in the lowered position.


 

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.