Friday, May 9, 2014

Secaucus Station: The Second-Ugliest Building in Jersey

Several days ago, I discussed the "ugliest building in New Jersey," a colossal retail/amusement park complex in the New Jersey's Meadowlands.  The "ugliest" tag came from the state's governor.

I am not an architect or an architectural critic, but I always have cringed as I have driven past the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Sation at Secaucus Junction on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Before venturing an opinion about the station, I called an architect I respect and asked for his thoughts.

"Awful," he said.  "I think it gives (the aforementioned ugliest building) a run for its money."

With this validation, I now proceed.

The Secaucus Junction station was designed as a transfer point for various New Jersey train lines.  Its reported cost at the time of its 2003 opening was $450 million, although an article in the reputable Bergen Record, the local daily, later pegged the number at $700 million.

(An additional $500 million was spent for a convoluted two-mile loop of an exit off the turnpike to reach the station, which was opened without a parking lot, but that is a discussion for another day.)

Here are some pictures of the station.  Notice that it has two entirely different elements stacked one on top of the other.

Here is another view.  What we have is a not-very-convincing traditional looking base topped by an entirely unrelated top piece, rather suggestive of a rocket ship, that seems to come from a different era or architectural sensibility.

To be honest, I'm not sure I would like the building if either the top or the bottom formed the major portion of its exterior view.  Together, the effect is quite jarring.

Of course, the station has a clock tower.  (What is it with clock towers?  Every strip mall since the 1980s has had a clock tower.)  The curious thing about this clock tower is that it doesn't seem to be part of the station or visible to people entering the station or in the station itself.  It's just sitting alongside for some reason.

Below, at its farther reaches, the building presents a sorta classical/sorta modern frontage to the freeway next door.

I will concede that designing a structure for this purpose was a challenge.  Its location, in the swampy Meadowlands, does not allow for underground train passages.  The solution devised was to require passengers from the outside (assumed to be few in number, given the lack of parking) to go up several steep flights to the main floor.

Wags on Yelp have joked that this offers a running start at a full day's workout.  Others have complained that the elevator from the ground floor is so slow that passengers fight each other to get in so as not to have to wait for the elevator return to the ground.

Anyway. Once travelers reach the top floor of the building, they encounter a a 75-foot rotunda with lots of windows and a great big pussy willow sculpture whose tips light up in pastel colors at night. The interior's floor and walls are all marble.

Having once reached this top level of the station, passengers then must go back down two or more levels to reach the train platforms.  

(Interestingly, the lighting in the rotunda area has been a bit problematic. According to the Bergen Record's 2006 article, some of the 608 ceiling lights had burned out and required replacement within 28 months.  This replacement was accomplished by locating a crane outside the building to send up workers, cracking a hole in the ceiling, then hoisting up another crane and using that to enter the building and screw in replacement bulbs.  When it was suggested that scaffolding, a lot of it, might be an easier way to reach the burned-out bulbs, the architects from Brennan Beer Gorman, the building's designers, vetoed the idea, saying this would require plywood placement on the floors to protect the marble and also that "Scaffolding might block the skylight.")

Finally, the lighting stanchions on the station's outside platforms appear to have been fashioned in a foundry in about 1910.  My guess is they were intended as a reference to classic train stations of the past, but they don't seem to me to fit with the Secaucus station itself.  To be fair, what would?

Note:  In my May 4 post, The Ugliest Building in New Jersey, I noted that plans had been approved to fix that sad sow's ear of a project.  If that transformation is completed successfully, the Secaucus station will move to the top of my list.

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