Maura Moynihan in the Middle on Dad’s Penn Station Dream

Ms. Moynihan has tried to maintain links to the advocacy organizations that are in some ways her oldest and most natural allies, but it is clear that some distance separates them now. According to its president, Peg Breen, the Landmarks Conservancy helped the Friends of Moynihan Station set up its kickoff party in 2005: a cocktail hour at Farley Post Office with Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton.

But then, the developers changed their plan. Not only did they want to convert Farley into a roomier, grander entrance to Penn Station’s train tracks, they planned to move Madison Square Garden to the western half of the building, leaving the arena’s current location free for a new Penn Station. But moving the arena could also endanger some of the architectural trademarks in the old post office, which, like the old Penn Station, was also designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Ms. Moynihan was one of the key people whom the developers approached with the idea. While the new plan would make the project immensely more complicated—and take more time and money to complete—she embraced it fairly quickly. In fact, she even narrated a short film that the architect James Sanders wrote and the developers funded and showed to different government figures and civic organizations in order to promote the idea of the two-station solution.

“Maura has been a passionate pragmatist when it comes to this project,” Vishaan Chakrabarti, the president of Moynihan Station Venture, the partnership set up by Vornado and Related, told The Observer in a telephone interview. “She’s got a wonderful, fiery personality and she wants to hear jackhammers. She wants to see this project built. And I think it is refreshing that she saw early on the involvement of the private sector as a positive thing, in that they would add resources and energy.”

At the same time, Ms. Moynihan has tried not to alienate the preservationists, avoiding specific positions on issues such as signage while pushing a general spirit of compromise.

On her purple blazer last Friday, she wore a button that read, “Build it well. Build it now,” which is the slogan of the public awareness campaign that the Friends of Moynihan Station will launch this week. She keeps inviting the Municipal Art Society and the Landmarks Conservancy to meetings of the Friends group—which is run under the auspices of another civic group, the Regional Plan Association—and the three have discussed some sort of position they could all share.

“We’re a civic group very interested in the quality of architecture and planning and we are coming at it from a different perspective than that of a family,” said Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society. “I think she wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on either architecture and preservation. Where she has been coming from, and it is useful, is to try to push the project forward.”

The expanded Moynihan station is hardly recognizable as the project that its namesake senator advocated in his final years. It is even questionable—although nobody has bothered to question it—whether it’s worth the public putting in $550 million to renovate Farley since it will only accommodate a third of the riders who will go through the entire complex. The Penn Station overhaul is expected to cost another $2 billion, and, so far, the developers have offered to cover $450 million of that.

According to a source familiar with the plan, once the arena is moved (anticipated to occur in 2011), the current Penn Station would be unearthed and covered with a glass roof, which would let sunlight reach the ground floor and concourses. The state will choose between two plans: One would put large 90-story towers on the north and south sides of the block; the other would put a million-square-foot shopping center there and disperse the remaining development rights to nearby parcels. The state and developers have taken to calling the redone Penn Station “Moynihan East” and the converted Farley building “Moynihan West,” although it is questionable whether Amtrak will change its nomenclature from “Penn Station.”

The plan, while lacking any architectural renderings, has drawn lukewarm reactions from preservationists.

“I think it would be fantastic to do two train stations, and I think moving Madison Square Garden can be done, but it is up to the state to make sure the public does win,” said Ms. Breen. “You don’t want Moynihan East to become a shopping mall and Moynihan West to become a lobby to Madison Square Garden, which I think is what it is becoming.”

Ms. Moynihan knows she has a special status, because of her pedigree, in the fight over the train station, and she tries to keep a statesmanlike distance from the nitty-gritty details as a result. And while this chapter in her varied life, like many others, has put her in the spotlight, she acts as if the station campaign is a chore, or at least a duty, rather than a pleasure.

“When you are living your life, it is very banal,” she said. “It’s full of struggle, pain and confusion and fear. It doesn’t seem at all glamorous, one’s life, when one is in it.”

She wants to see construction started before she returns to Asia. How long she will wait for that, she will not say.