THE FUTURE WAS YESTERDAY. When the subways used modern design

In the 1950s, despite the considerable charms of Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, Jane Russell and so many other voluptuous stars in film and magazines, it was decided in the architectural community that curves were definitely out.

The United Nations Headquarters on 1st Avenue was built from 1947-1953 by an international team of architects that included Le Corbusier of France; at the same time, the Lever House (built for the soap company) was rising on Park Avenue. Clean, unobstructed lines were in; terra cotta, ornamentation and most of all, any curves, circles or ovals were out. It took the subways about 20 years to catch up to this architectural trend, and from the late 1960s on through the early 1980s, the TA (later the MTA) experimented with modern, sleek-looking subway stations that, in some cases, bordered on sterility. We’ll look at just a few of them on this Forgotten page.


As we’ll see, the subways went burnt-orange crazy in the ‘modern era,’ coating several subway station walls with the autumnal color.

Bowling Green, opened on July 10, 1905, boasted an unusual configuration: an island platform and two side platforms. As originally constructed, the island platform served the main line to Brooklyn in both directions, as well as trains heading down a short loop to South Ferry. The loop to South Ferry was soon discontinued, but survived as a shuttle until 1977…the same year its original mosaic name panels and mosaic tapestries created by George Heins and Christopher LaFarge were covered over by oceans of orange.



Heins and LaFarge also designed Bowling Green’s two ‘control houses’ in which fares were taken. The first was in front of the old Customs House Building (now the National Museum of the American Indian) when Bowling Green was a through street; it was closed to traffic during the 1977 renovation.



Bowling Green’s original name tablet and tapestries are shown in this photo courtesy David Pirrmann of in the early 1970s. Though this variety of mosaic tapestry was covered at Bowling Green, there are two other examples in the system at the IRT 72nd Street station at Broadway and at 110th Street and Lenox Avenue; the ones at 72nd Street were being renovated in 2003.


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South of Bowling Green in Battery Park, one of Heins & LaFarge’s original station houses is still extant.



Inside the foyer at the entrance on Bowling Green. The passageway has been lined with old-time photos of the Staten Island Ferry from the 1930s (note that the ferry is about six blocks from Bowling Green station; ferry passengers have a much shorter walk from the BMT Whitehall Street station, which is inaccessible from here).


As part of the renovations at Bowling Green and other subway stations, new flooring, railings and fare control areas were built.

Probably the only element remaining from the original H&L Bowling Green station design are the fluted columns, which have survived modernization in the NYC subway station as well as stations on the PATH lines.

It should be noted that the 1977-1978 reconstruction of Bowling Green took twice as long and cost half as much (in 1905 $$$) as the construction of the original subway line!

Bowling Green itself is New York’s oldest public park, going back to the era of British occupation. The wrought iron fence surrounding the park is the original one and goes back to the mid-1700s. Broadway begins here and continues, as Route 9, all the way to the Canadian border where it joins that country’s network of provincial roads.



At intervals, the side walls of Bowling Green feature sepia-toned renderings of historical scenes, including this one depicting a scene from about 1840. (Each artwork is accompanied by a plaque explaining what’s in the picture.) Is that Bill “The Butcher” Poole with the top hat?


49th Street, part of the BMT Broadway line, was renovated in the early 1970s by prestigious architect Philip Johnson with a glazed-brick covering of burnt orange, the first time the color was used in the subways. It’s possible 49th Street was selected for the experimental makeover because it is close to the theater district.

In the early Seventies, 49th Street was indeed a change from the original mosaic tiling installed in 1919 (right). Architect Johnson was quoted about the renovation in a 1970 New York Times article: “Cheer is the word, like a big shopping center.” 49th was the first NYC subway station to have sound baffling installed in the ceiling. It’s questionable whether it did much good.


Relegated to a shuttle from 2002-2004, Grand Street was the first totally new New York City Subway station for nearly three decades, along with 57th Street (see below).

The Grand Street station is a product of new routings instituted by the then-TA following the new Chrystie Street connection, built in 1967, that allowed IND Sixth Avenue (B, D) trains to run across the Manhattan Bridge. Previously, those tracks on the north side of the bridge went up Broadway, but the renovations gave the IND a Manhattan Bridge passage to Brooklyn via the north side. BMT tracks on the south side of the bridge were then rerouted to Broadway, and their connection to Chambers Street was terminated.

A new system of tiling was used when the station opened in 1968, based somewhat on the spare IND-type mosaics, but pared down to basic white tiles with a blue color band containing the station name. This type of tiling had been used in the 1960s and would continue in the 1970s in all three branches of the subway system.

The walls of the Grand Street station are designed to be removed, in case a Second Avenue Subway connection were to be made here.

In the early 1980s, the monotonous Grand Street station was spiffed up with playful bas-relief sculptures.

Atlantic Avenue, a major transfer point between the IND, BMT and IRT (and, perhaps, at one time, the LIRR), provides an interesting contrast between the original Heins & LaFarge terra cotta emblems, installed in 1908, and the el cheapo tile job done during a 1960s renovation. The original ‘A’ is flanked by tulips (there are other flower designs at Bleecker and 110th Streets). Interestingly, a platform extension done in the early 1910s reproduces the “A” and tulips motif, but in mosaic, not terra cotta. The 1960s tilework resembles Grand Street, this time with an aqua color band. Since the mid-1980s, the complex has been undergoing a seemingly endless renovation.

In the late 1960s, following the lead of Grand Street, the entire BMT 4th Avenue/Broadway line from 77th Street in the south to 5th Avenue in the north was completely renovated with a white tile scheme with floor-to-ceiling splashes of color containing the station nameplate. Four colors were used in rotation: red/orange, blue, gold and gray, and these stations also pioneered the use of the Akzidenz Grotesk type font, which became the standard issue TA/MTA typefont for years until it was replaced in the 1980s by its close lookalike, Helvetica. Original renovated nameplates were white with black type; they were replaced with the reverse configuration in the 1980s.

In the early 2000s, most the BMT Broadway stations had this tilework stripped off, revealing the original late 1910s mosaic work, which is presently being restored. However, the 1960s work remains on the BMT 4th Avenue, so there’s a good opportunity to contrast the styles.

Original 1910s tile work still remains on the center column.

A major theme where we have modern tilework in the subways constructed from the late 60s to the early 80s is its frequent juxtaposition with original tilework; this is demonstrated starkly at the IRT Hoyt Street station in Brooklyn, with a truly ugly red-and-beige concoction placed cheek by jowl with its original 1908 mosaics which have a tulip theme similar to that at Atlantic Avenue.


There were terra cotta cartouches with the initial “H” at Hoyt Street; only one has been preserved, and is currently at the Transit Museum. Today a red and white nameplate makes do.

Yesterday meets tomorrow. The east end of Hoyt Street has been preserved while the rest of Hoyt Street was retiled about 1979-1980.



Fluted columns bear witness to Hoyt Street’s over 90-year-old pedigree; constant leakage is taking a toll and it seems like the 1980 renovation may be ready for an overhaul.



The red tiling on the columns at Hoyt Street is rather reminiscent of that on the MBTA Red Line tilework.

Hoyt Street once had a direct connection to the A&S (now Macy’s) department store; that connection has been eliminated for years.

Red, red and more red as the MTA replaced the original IND tile scheme with a red and white theme in the late 70s’ renovation of 53rd St./5th Avenue on the Queens Boulevard line.



Some of this reno, now almost a quarter century old, has begun to show its age or lack of maintenance.



53rd Street/5th Avenue is constructed unusually, with two tunnels atop one another (Wilson Avenue on the Canarsie BMT is built similarly as are some stations on the Concourse IND on Central Park West). The Manhattan-bound side features a ceiling vault tile treatment that the Queens bound side lacks.

53rd Street/5th Avenue is a simple, clean design that works well; however, it is in a desperate need for rehabilitation.



Here again is another handsome early example of the Akzidenz Grotesk typefont at work in the subways.


A visit topside at 53rd Street allows a view of the new awning over the entrance, as well as a view of two Citicorp buildings, the one on Lexington Avenue and the other in Jackson Heights in Queens, directly visible looking east on 53rd Street.


Along with Grand Street (above) 57th Street, the original terminal of the IND Sixth Avenue line, was opened in July 1968. While Grand Street was stark, with off white tile and a blue color band, 57th Street is even more Spartan, with mere white tile and a chrome waiting area on the mezzanine. The waiting area is the typical IND aircraft hangar size, and there’s even an old-style phone booth.


What is likely an original 1968 track indicator.


Just the facts, Ma’am: the name of the station is the only embellishment on the stark white tile at 57th Street.


57th Street originally served as the terminus of the 6th Avenue IND trunk line after the Chrystie Street connection was built in 1967. B trains would end their run here while D trains turned off to continue their run up Central Park West into the Bronx. In 1989 57th Street lost its terminal status when the 63rd Street “Tunnel to Nowhere”, or more specifically, Long Island City, was opened. In 2002 the Tunnel to Nowhere was connected to the IND Queens Boulevard line.

With the addition of the V local running in the 53rd Street tunnel, the F was rerouted to the 63rd Street tunnel and is now the only train stopping here. 57th has been home to the B and Q in the past.


Arggh, another ultra-drab 60s makeover on the Upper West Side stations at 79th and 86th Streets. While some original terra cotta remains from 1904, much of the northern ends of the platforms have been given over to a plain white with light beige band of color containing the station name.

86th Street, though, has been enlivened by mosaic “photograph paintings” by local students and some poetry over most of the platforms.

In a strange coincidence, 86th Street is prominent in both Manhattan and Brooklyn and each have a couple of subway stations along their lengths.


More properly, 137th Street/City College. This is one of the more impressive original IRT stations from 1904, featuring mosaics in City College lavender and a three headed bas relief representing Past (“Respice”), Present (“Adspice”), and Future (“Prospice”). Most of City College’s original tile job was wiped out in a red-and white makeover in the 1980s, featuring a fossil motif.


Interestingly, a nod to the IRT (and BMT’s old habit of fluting columns was done in the 137/City College reno.


Two station ID tablets, and two three-headed bas reliefs, have been preserved in the station. In addition, a “137” terra cotta plaque produced by Atlantic Terra Cotta in 1904 is owned by the NYC Transit museum and will be on view when the museum reopens, hopefully in 2003 or 2004.


You won’t find a sand dollar and a starfish anywhere else in the subway.


By the time we get to the Eighties, the subway had reached its absolute depths…equipment breakdowns…graffiti taggers running amuck…track fires, you name it. It was at about this time, though, that the MTA decided that indeed, the future was yesterday, at least as far as design goes, and began plotting to restore some stations to their former mosaicized glory. But it was to be done in fitful stages, at least initially.

At first, two stations, 51st Street and Wall Street, both on the IRT Lexington Avenue line, had their walls heavily bricked over, 51st Street in an off-beige and Wall Street in a royal blue. However, station name plate mosaics as well as several original 1905 treatments like the terra cotta rendering of the wall that protected Nieuw Amsterdam from rampaging Injuns and Brits in the mid-1600s were preserved. In addition, on the southbound platform is a wooden token booth and a ticket chopper, wooden restroom doors on each side and an entrance to the Equitable Building.

2007: Wall Street has undergone yet another renovation, with the blue glazed tiles removed.



Your webmaster has always been partial to the original Wall Street reno…the glazed brick is in my favorite shade of blue. Note there’s no period in St–there was no set style at the time, and sometimes you got periods in abbreviations, and sometimes you didn’t.

As with 53rd Street/5th Avenue (above) this reno is now over 20 years old, and is definitely showing signs of wear with peeling plaster on the ceiling.

Fulton Street, the very next stop on the Lex, was redone at about the same time as Wall Street, and was a fullblooded renovation, a restoration of the original tilework, mosaics and friezes..a template for what the MTA would subsequently do on all the station renovations that followed, including masterful renovations at Astor Place and the Broadway BMT stations.



In 1988, the MTA unveiled three new subway stations, at Kew GardensSutphin Boulevard and Parsons Boulevard/Archer Avenue. These stations served to connect the IND Eighth Avenue (E) with the BMT Nassau Street line (J) at Parsons Boulevard, but at the cost of much of the Jamaica Avenue El; the section between the 121st Street station and the original 168th Street terminal was razed, and new tunnels and tracks were built for both lines. The plan was originally much more ambitious, extending out to southeast Queens, possibly utilizing some underused Long Island Rail Road tracks, but one of New York City’s periodic budget crunches scotched that plan. As it is, it took ten years between cessation of service on the to-be-razed Jamaica Avenue section (1978) and service to begin on the new Parsons-Archer Avenue connection in 1988. This is not as severe as the duration between demolition of the Third Avenue El and any new service on a Second Avenue Subway; with a renewed NYC budget crunch, this one the severest in recent history (as of 2003), straphangers will undoubtedly be waiting for a Second Avenue Subway for a long time to come.

The stations on the Parsons-Archer connection are leftover from the 1967-1982 method of building: modern, sleek and utterly characterless; indeed the Parsons-Archer terminal has now endured 15 years of use and it appears to have been there for decades.

Three new stations were also unveiled when the MTA opened up a branch to Queens that dead-ended at the Queensboro Houses at 21st Street, using the new 63rd Street Tunnel, leading some to dub the line the “Tunnel to Nowhere.” In 2001, the MTA finally completed a connection to the IND Queens Boulevard line. The three stations were the last ones that were done in a completely new style (any Second Avenue line, if it does come, will probably incorporate a streamlined design with traditional touches, such as tiled station nameplates.)

Included in the Lex Ave./63rd Street and Roosevelt Island stations are additional tracks for a proposed Long Island Rail Road connection to Grand Central Terminal. If this link is made, it will open no sooner than the early 2010s.


The new stations on the 63rd Street Tunnel were built long before they actually opened and by and large, adhere to the 1970s modern method, with bold colors, plenty of fluorescent lighting, and tiled platforms and ceilings…as well as plenty of burnt orange, as at Lexington Avenue/63rd Street, which opened, along with Roosevelt Island and 21st St./Queensbridge, in October 1989.



The new 63rd Street Tunnel stations are probably about as “modern”-looking as the subways will ever get, if the 60s-70s template is no longer followed in the future.

A distinctive feature of Lex Ave./63rd Street is its curved walls which echo the cylindrical subway tunnel.


These are some of the deepest subway tunnels in the entire system, with fully three levels of escalators to tackle before you emerge on the surface. Unusually, the Roosevelt Island interior has wide-open feel with no center columns, a reflective ceiling vault treatment and a unique backlit scheme. It’s the only subway station called “island.”

The ‘fare control’ area is more suburban in feel than most other exterior station houses in NYC. Many other exterior stations in the MTA date back to the days when the lines were actual railroad lines later converted to subways. The Queensboro Bridge can be seen from outside the station.

The exterior of the Roosevelt Island station is quite subdued and sober. An IND-type stanchion with a green light, signifying the station is open at all hours, enlivens things just a bit.


Subway Ceramics, Lee Stookey, self-published 1994
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