David Childs: The Architectual Spirit of Pat Moynihan

david-childs.480.323.sAs part of a celebration marking the publication of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” AAPSS invited David Childs to read one of the letters of Senator Moynihan included in the book and comment on its significance. Childs is Chairman Emeritus of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The following is a transcript of Child’s selection, which may also be listened to or downloaded as a podcast.

Letter from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to President Ronald Reagan, August 24, 1987

David Childs: There are so many people at my table alone that could give this better than I, but I am happy to be here. Phyllis, thank you for all that you have done to create this evening.  I am, indeed, an architect and one who is interested in large urban matters.  So it was not at all surprising that I began my career by coming down to work for Pat Moynihan on his and Nat Owings’ Pennsylvania Avenue Plan many years ago and that I, in fact, am ending my career working on Pat’s and Liz’s and Maura’s Moynihan Station in New York.  And in fact it is interesting that these two projects in a way, the grandest building enterprises that one can imagine, book-ended as well Pat’s own career in public service.  His letters are proof that the extraordinary diversity of the man, his interests and talents, but I knew him and admired Pat most for his work and influence in the design of the public realm, which has been extraordinarily great, as you well know.  The subset of the letters on planning, architecture, and preservation is quite thin within the volume of this very thick book, but I deeply believe they occupied a disproportionately large part of his heart.  In fact, in one of the letters that he wrote to a president early in his public service in Washington, he said to that president, encouraging him to do this, he said, “The opportunity to influence public design should be one of the great rewards of office,” and he, in fact, took this for himself.  And I think it was one of his very greatest rewards that would be achieved.

Now, the first rule an architect learns about submitting a design in a design competition or in speaking among a group of people like this is to break the rules.  And so (and I warned Phyllis about this earlier) in fact I am going to read briefly from two letters, not one, but I will edit them further (excuse me, Steve) to keep us back on track.  So each will involve one of the two projects that I mentioned, the first being on Pennsylvania Avenue.  And in opening the letter, Steve writes, “Letter to President Reagan recounting the history of his involvement in the project to renovate Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote to Moynihan later in the year, “Twenty-five years is a long time to not give up on something.  I think that the completed Pennsylvania Avenue will be a monument to your dedication.  I hope that Americans realize that.  I will be forever grateful, dear Pat, for your messages to me all along the way, for the spirit you brought to something Jack cared so deeply about, and for this happy ending.”

August 24, 1987

Dear Mr. President,

May I express my great gratitude for your approving the Federal Triangle Development Act.  This brings to a close a quarter-century’s effort on my part.  On June 1, 1962, President Kennedy signed an order (which I had drafted) calling for the re-development of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Our plan was ready a year later and as it happened the last instruction the President gave before leaving for Dallas was that on his return a coffee hour be arranged with the congressional leadership where he could introduce the plan.  Well, of course, he never did return and so the task devolved on me.  Block by block, project by project, if I may say president by president, we have put it together and now it is finished, thanks to you. 

May I make one final point?   In this age of what has been called the architecture of coercion, we set out to make Pennsylvania Avenue lively, friendly, and inviting as well as dignified and impressive.  The result is cluttered and eclectic, but very much American and Americans should feel at home on the Avenue of the Presidents.  This looks accidental; it was nothing such.

In the second letter about Pennsylvania Station, Steven opens it by saying,  “The letter to Representative David Obey, asking for help in moving Pennsylvania Station to the old post office building in New York City, which he said, ‘is hugely important to me’ with an election that year.”

June 9, 1994

Dear Dave,

I need your help.  As you surely know, some thirty years ago New York City allowed Pennsylvania Station to be torn down by the then private owners.  Some good came of it, namely the preservation movement, but New Yorkers were left with a subway station where there had once been the Baths of Caracalla.  Vincent Scully at Yale put it, “You used to enter New York City as a king, now you slither in like a rat.”  However, in a miracle of sorts it turns out that the post office is leaving the Farley Building, which is directly across Eighth Avenue, built to the same proportions, by the same architects, and is sitting atop the exact same tracks.  Amtrak has come up with a plan to turn the post office into a new Penn Station.

May I plead for your help?  Almost one-half of the Amtrak passengers in the country arrive or depart from Penn Station, so it is important to the future of rail transportation.  It is also hugely important to me in this election session.

I must say when architects today, while speaking of their involvement in public work, and I think Bob you would be the first to understand this, say things like we need another Pat Moynihan, I’ll say.

David Childs

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