A while back, I got to spend a year reading and writing at the New York Public Library, whose glorious Beaux-Arts pile brightens two full blocks of Fifth Avenue. And every day when the library closed, one of my singular pleasures was to leave that wonderful building and, heading up 41st Street to those same two blocks on Eighth, get a look at another of New York’s architectural splendors: The Port Authority Bus Terminal.
I love its unabashed, unfussy bulk, its bold sculptural forms, the Yankee honesty that leaves it content to say, “Here I am.”
And I realize that, round about now, readers of an architectural bent must believe I’ve gone mad. The bus terminal is quite possibly the most reviled building in Manhattan, attacked as hulking and brutal and domineering—as “the single worst place on planet Earth,” according to a quip from John Oliver. Last month, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that it was ready to spend as much as $10 billion on replacing the 40-year-old terminal building with something shiny and new—some pile of glass and steel that would fit in with other high-end construction of recent years, like Hudson Yards or the oligarchs’ erections on 57th Street. Judging from concept drawings for the new project, it will work hard to conceal the vital, noble function that the terminal serves: Making room for lowly buses to pull in and unload ordinary people eager to get to their ordinary jobs.
That’s precisely what the old terminal refuses to hide, and why I’m so fond of it. The bold criss-cross of girders that parades across its top two stories happily, deliberately reveals the buses parked behind; those girders’ massive beams make clear the hard work it takes to bear the weight of all those vehicles. If a building like this permits metaphor (it almost seems designed to resist it) I’d say that it stands as a tribute to the laboring classes who built it—the kinds of people more likely to take buses than trains or planes or town cars, and who get so little credit for their efforts these days.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal has the courage to go horizontal when the rest of modern Manhattan is obsessed with height. In a city keen on architectural ornament—the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building; the columns, sculptures, scripts and garlands on the Public Library—the bus terminal is all about letting function and engineering speak for themselves. Its girders remind me of the stunning constructions of Gustave Eiffel. The sequoia-thick columns that support its upper stories, perfect cylinders clad in dark brick, call to mind the husky piers of Roman aqueducts, still standing after two millennia. Its delight in revealing its function evokes the great Pompidou Center in Paris, which came out of the same moment and movement in architectural thought. Look at New York’s bus terminal—really look at it, as jaundiced New Yorkers can’t seem to do—and its glories start to seem almost self-evident.
The bus terminal we now see was put up over several years in the late 1970s and early ’80s, replacing one completed in 1950 as a last gasp of Art Deco. The anonymous Port Authority employees who designed the current structure were clearly working under the influence of major ’60s architects like Kevin Roche, whose bold functionalism suited a brief moment when major public buildings were supposed to value social engagement over corporate sheen. In 1982, the boldness of Roche’s thought and designs won him the Pritzker Prize, often billed as architecture’s Nobel. That was the same year the bus terminal was completed with the look we see today.
Which also means that, if the bus terminal’s demolition goes forward as planned, it will have survived for just about the same length of time as the old Penn Station did, before that Beaux-Arts treasure got torn down in favor of something “better,” more functional, more up-to-date. That destruction is now seen as a tragic mistake, but at the time it could seem an obvious move toward a better future. Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic, once recalled that stepping into the fussy, frou-frou, fuddy-duddy old train station had felt like “arriving in Philadelphia two hours before you had to.”
This country has already lost any number of architectural masterpieces that shared the ideals of New York’s bus station. Roche’s monumental Coliseum, a stadium in New Haven that wasthe direct inspiration for the Port Authority’s terminal, was torn down in 2007 at the age of just 35; the great Burroughs Welcome complex near Raleigh, N.C., by Roche’s colleague Paul Rudolph, is coming down as I write. Its current owners declared it “functionally obsolete,” which is precisely what the Port Authority is now saying about its bus terminal and was once said about the old Penn Station. But that’s the fate of almost any building you could name; they all need retrofitting as demands on them change. It’s true of the Capitol in Washington, of Faneuil Hall in Boston, of the Public Library in New York. But once you’ve decided a building is too good and iconic to lose, you fix its problems while preserving the parts that give it soul.
Clean the rust off the bus station’s girders and give them a fresh coat of paint—red, as they began life, not the dull blue they wear today. Tear off the jumbotrons recently hung from the facade. Open up the building’s insides to light and air. New York could once again find itself with an urban “oasis” in the chaos of midtown.
That’s how the Port Authority described its bus terminal, back when it was new.
“Radio City Music Hall when the lights go up,” was one astonished commuter’s reaction, early in ’83. “All that's missing are the Rockettes.”