Fred A. Bernstein

< Back

A Monument to Arriving in the Middle of Nowhere

A review of the Secaucus Transfer

Published in The New York Times, July 11, 2004


WHEN the old Pennsylvania Station in New York was demolished 40 years ago, its remains -- including hundreds of chunks of pinkish granite -- were dumped in the Meadowlands. So it's tempting to think of the new Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station, built on the same swamp that shelters those remains, as part of a rebirth of great train station architecture.

The building -- known as the Secaucus Transfer -- links 10 of New Jersey Transit's 11 train lines. The station, which became fully operational last December, permits a quick switch to a Penn Station-bound train. Conceived in the late 1980's, it is the kind of investment in public transportation rarely seen in the S.U.V. era.

But for all its ambitions, it is not a destination, not in the way that New York's big stations, or even small suburban stations, are. Users of this station arrive on one platform and depart on another, without seeing the outside of the building (any more than one expects to see the outside of a subway station). Indeed, the building's exterior would be almost irrelevant if it weren't some 50 yards from the New Jersey Turnpike, where thousands of motorists drive past it every day. Many must wonder what it is. In this era of big-box stores, a giant new building without a billboard is as mysterious as a pink granite column rising from a swamp.

What drivers see is a 900-foot-long building made of beige concrete panels textured to look like stone. The wall is interrupted by windows that are vaguely traditional (they have crisscrossing mullions more common in Colonial-style houses than in buildings one-sixth of a mile long), with sills that project out as much a foot. The goal, said Mark Sheeleigh, of Brennan Beer Gorman of Manhattan, the building's architects, was ''to create a grand station but at the same time make clear that it wasn't built 100 years ago.''

But raised above a swamp, with trains entering and departing through openings at its base, the building seems insubstantial. (This isn't the architects' fault. What station wouldn't look flimsy on stilts, with tracks in place of a foundation?) Then, too, the concrete panels may have the texture of stone, but they are clearly just hung on the surface. Even from the turnpike, at 70 miles an hour, there's no confusing them for the real thing.

No one expects stone to hold up the roof -- even at the late, great Penn Station, ''stone'' columns were really steel columns hidden in granite. But here, details like windowsills were precast into larger panels, eliminating the seams needed to fool the eye into believing that the wall was built from heavy blocks.

Of course, it is the building's interiors that matter most. Train platforms are themselves nicely designed (with surfaces dark enough to avoid looking old the first time someone spills a Coke). Escalators (31 altogether) lead up to long hallways, which intersect in a 75-foot-high rotunda capped by a 50-foot-wide skylight. In the rotunda's center, a giant aluminum sculpture by Cork Marcheschi shows the cattails that surround the station.

The trouble is, the walls climbing up to the top of the dome are inconsistently detailed -- wallboard is painted to look like stone, but only in some places, as if the architects didn't know what effect they were after. Worse, from the benches circling the room, the dome's clerestory windows offer views of not only the sky but also the air-conditioning equipment on the roof. It's hard to imagine the architects of grand buildings of earlier eras placing mechanical equipment where it would mar important vistas.

The benches themselves --made of chunks of wood as thick as logs -- are, visually, far too heavy for the building, and they make the building's lack of substance that much more apparent. The room isn't terrible -- it resembles the atrium of a mall -- but malls also have signs and merchandise to draw the eye away from the expanses of beige tile.

Not surprisingly, the best interior elements are the ones that are train station-specific, including giant steel signs on all four sides of the rotunda that list arrivals and departures. The signs have a clarity, not just of lettering, but of design, that the rest of the building lacks, and they suggest that the building would have benefited from a little more honesty about its function. All over the world, architects are creating soaring transportation buildings, including airports, train stations and ferry terminals, with exposed structures that bespeak technological prowess and reaffirm the ability of architecture to inspire. (To its credit, the Port Authority chose the best of those architects, Santiago Calatrava, for its planned transportation hub in Lower Manhattan.)

The Secaucus Transfer, which has the cruciform floor plan of a great cathedral, is inherently grand, but it hides its grandeur under muddy surface decoration.

People who move through the station will be delighted by its efficiency and sleekness; it helps that, with hardly anyone spending more than a few minutes there, it is immaculate. But it could have been much more than an attractive pass-through.

Inevitably, office buildings and hotels will rise around the station. The new neighborhood could have had a real monument -- with either the solidity of a great old station or the drama of a great new one -- at its heart.