by Kevin Walsh


AS WE celebrate the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway in 2004, just think about what 100 years has meant for the sheer variety of architectural styles that are represented down below.

Next time you take the mugger mover, consider that the subways were built by three different companies that were once in competition. Also remember that NYC subways negotiate swamps, hills, bays, flatlands and most every kind of terrain imaginable except tundra. NYC subway stations are els, at grade, on embankments and underground near the surface and hundreds of feet below. No other system in the country can match it for variety.

Let’s take a look at just a few of NYC’s more unusual stations….

One of just two elevated IND stations, 4th Avenue in Park Slope is a marvel of Art Deco construction and, if it were ever to be restored to its original glory, could be the crown jewel of the subway system itself.

The 4th Avenue station is located on an elevated platform that is adjacent to a subway tunnel. Park Slope rises sharply as the subway travels east and IND engineers tunneled under the hill just east of the station.

In 1933 the nation’s economy was at a low ebb during the Depression and unemployment hovered at around 25% nationwide. Yet it was an exciting time for subway riders as dozens of new stations opened as the new Independent Subway, the first run by the City itself, rolled out new subway cars and brand new stations filled with brightly colored tile and streamlined Machine Age graphics.

At Fourth Avenue the tracks are close to the ground, but still high enough to require bridging over the avenue. Engineers came up with a beautiful arch bridge with Art Deco accents. For the first few decades of its existence, the windows on the platforms were clear and allowed a view north to the Williamsburgh Building and south toward Bay Ridge.

The MTA plans to open a futuristic “Transit Hub” over its downtown Fulton Street complex, is gradually opening a grand, airy new Stillwell terminal in Coney Island, and the Port Authority will be opening a futuristic new PATH station nearby to be designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. But for my money, the MTA is allowing a gem in its midst to tarnish. Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’ve got.

The windows on the arch bridge have been painted brown for many years, since at least the 1970s; I remember grime-caked windows you could see through as late as the Sixties. The MTA was tired of vandals graffiting and breaking them, so the agency just painted them opaque. Now and then, though, the paint flakes off…

…and you are temporarily vouchsafed the view that graffiti guys, vandals and the MTA have conspired to deny you for the last quarter century. Looking north up 4th Avenue, the iconic Williamsburgh Bank Building rises in the distance.

The G doesn’t stop here. It merely uses Fourth Avenue to switch tracks and turn around for its journey across Brooklyn into Long Island City. The G train has never ventured into Manhattan, though on an unusual day in June 2004, it did get as far as Coney Island. [2012: the G has been extended south to Church Avenue at least temporarily]

From 1933: the 4th Avenue arch has been just about completed and now awaits its brick cladding in December 1931.

The Art Deco masterpiece was finisihed by October 1933. It has been left to slowly decay since then.

Can it ever be restored to its original glory?

Photos from Building the Independent Subway by Frederick A. Kramer, Quadrant Press 1990.

[In 2012 the 4th Avenue station was amid a complete renovation that will see the windows restored to full clarity.]

The view used to be a lot better. The back end of the southbound platform at Smith-9th Street, the IND station just west of 4th Avenue, used to afford what was probably the best view of the World Trade Center available from the subway. Now it offers a more barren, but still excellent, view of lower Manhattan. It can do so because it is the highest elevated station in the NYC subway.

A crack in the clouds allows illumination of the IND trestle over Gowanus Canal. IND engineers decided to run the subway over the canal a good 85+ feet over the canal to allow shipping to pass rather than try to tunnel under it.

In recent years the concrete trestle has begun to chip and crumble a little, though the structure is in no danger of collapse. The MTA has clad the concrete in a crumble-retardant material.

The station is at the corner of West 9th Street and Smith Street/Eileen Dugan Boulevard, named for a popular Assemblywoman who passed away in 1996. West 9th Street, formerly Church Street, was renamed, apparently, simply because it is a western extension of 9th Street. Brooklyn’s other West 9th Street, in Gravesend, probably came later.

Baby, the rain must fall. And fall it does on the northbound platform. As distinctive as it is, Smith/9th Street, like its brother 4th Avenue station, has pretty much been left to deteriorate over the years, both inside and out. A careful look at the drably painted station walls reveals that Smith/9th used to have windows as well, although a saving grace is that it has an extended portion of the station in the open air.

Both Miss Liberty and the Bayonne Bridge are easily seen from the towering platform.

A look at the improved but still toxic Gowanus Canal, and Gowanus Expressway, from the 9th Street drawbridge. “Gowanus” derives either from the name of local planter, a Delaware Indian named Gauwane, who the Dutch settlers dealt with in the 1630s. His name comes from a root word meaning “the sleeper.” At various times in the 20th Century, the neighborhood has been home to Mohawk Indians who worked on NYC’s skyscrapers.

One…and only one…of Smith/9th’s distinctive Art Moderne platform lampposts retains its original cowled luminaire, and that one is at the east end of the northbound platform. The others have been replaced by high-intensity bulbs. Stations along this line were among the last to get flourescent lighting, which didn’t arive until the early 1980s. Meanwhile, Smith/9th is the one and only IND station featuring its “Machine Age” block lettered signs on an outdoor platform, and it even retains the same exact light and dark green colors as the nearby Carroll and Bergen Street stations.

[In 2012 the station was closed, as it is undergoing a complete renovation; the leftover lamp stanchion has been removed; the station reopened, completely renovated, in May 2013]

Three of the Original 27 (subway stations) on the upper West Side used deep-bore tunneling to go through bedrock. Here the subway is about level, while the terrain isn’t: after bridging Manhattan Valley at 125th Street, the subway tunnel about 8 to 10 stories beneath Broadway at 168th, 181st and 191st Streets before emerging again on an el at Dyckman Street.

The stations are among the IRT’s most elaborate. Evidence exists of old chandelier-type lighting (similar to that at the now-abandoned City Hall station). Entrance and egress are afforded by elevators which have been modernized of late, though remains of the stations’ original manually-operated elevators can be found at 181st. The three stations feature unusual crossovers bridging the platforms; 168th Street features pendant platform lighting unique in the system.

Platform extensions are obvious at 181st as low-ceilings and thick pillars take over from the barrel vaulted original tunnel platform.

The stations’s barrel vaulting and crossovers are evident here as well as where the original chandeliers were hanging. After 1931 the station’s mosaic signs were amended to indicate the nearby bridge; you can tell the bridge was built with a walkway since it’s referred to from a subway station.

Meanwhile there is a short, bricked up exit from the station that’s a mystery to me.

Court Square is now the chief transfer point between the G and the E, V and 7 lines in Queens. It’s one of the few stations with an out-of-station transfer: Metrocards are programmed to recognize the tunstiles at the 45th Road/Court House station, which you have to walk a few yards along the street to access.

[2012: a new direct connection has been constructed for an easier transfer]

Court Square is the only station in the system (as far as I know) that uses a horizontal escalator, or people mover, more commonly seen in airports, along its lengthy transfer corridor that connects it to the 23rd/Ely Avenue station.

All it needs is a sound and light extravaganza like Michael Hayden’s “The Sky’s The Limit,” at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

IND sign makers thought of the Jamaica Estates/Holliswood area, where the IND winds up, as “Jamaica”; it was the old Jamaica Avenue el that traversed through the mid-Queens neighborhood’s heart, however. The IND was built as an alternative to the els, not as a connection to them, so it was important to establish an association in the public’s mind that this was a faster alternative to get you where you were going.

There had been signs elsewhere in the IND, along the Queens Blvd. line, that had mosaic “To Rockaway” signs; these were installed in advance of an expansion that never came.

Marcy Avenue on Brooklyn’s Broadway is along one of the oldest stretches of public transportation in Brooklyn: there’s been an elevated train here since September 1888. Trains were extended over the new Williamsburg Bridge in 1908 (LIRR trains even ran on this stretch of the el and took the bridge to Chambers Street in the early 1910s).

The el station has enjoyed a view of the dome of the Williamsburgh (there’s an h in the bank but not the neighborhood or the bridge) Savings Bank since the start. It was designed by architect George Post and built between 1870 and 1875. You’d think the HSBC people would be a bit less conspicuous in their signage, but previous owners Republic Bank made the same mistake. Note the Peter Luger sign: the famed wood-paneled steakhouse has been on Broadway since 1887.

Despite the subways’ tradition of rampant vandalism, stained glass has become a popular means of reviving stations in the last decade. Marcy Avenue, Franklin Avenue (on the shuttle), Westchester Square and Myrtle Avenue stations all use it to some degree. Queens Boulevard viaduct stations on the Flushing Line (#7) use stained glass Queens scenes from A to Z (does anyone have a list naming all the locations?)

It’s in, but it’s out. By the time the BMT Canarsie Line reaches East New York, it dances with the daylight as it sometimes emerges from the tunnel, and sometimes reticently goes back in, as if the sunlight was just too much on the headlights. The Wilson Avenue station epitomizes this schizoid behavior, as the Manhattan-bound side is in a subway, while the Canarsie-bound side is in the sunlight, facing Trinity Cemetery.

The north-and southbound stations were built atop each other because here the Canarsie Line must squeeze between Trinity Cemetery and the New York Connecting Railroad, which is running here between Fresh Pond Yard and Bay Ridge. In actuality the Manhattan-bound side is at street level while the Canarsie side is elevated.

1928 was the end of an era in subway construction. That was the year the last of the Dual Contract BMT stations along the Canarsie Line and the Flushing Line were opened (the Flushing Line has been operated by the IRT since the 1940s). So, 1928 was the last year that old-style BMT mosaics were installed in stations. And, from the looks of things, BMT engineers and artists anticipated that a change was in the air, since the usual conservative BMT pallette of muted greens and browns was shelved and a more vivid color pattern emerged. No two stations are tiled the same. Wilson, Montrose and Myrtle Avenues boast the most colorful tilework, while Bushwick-Aberdeen even features station names in mosaics on the pillars.

Just a sampling of the Arts-and-Crafts style Wilson Avenue tilework. As you can see the palette was greatly widened, admitting pink and robin’s egg blue while still emphasizing more conservative hues. These tiles are glazed porcelain, which can be found at several Canarise Line stations; usually station tiles were made from ceramics.

Arts and Crafts” was a design movement begun in the late 19th Century, primarily as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and featuring a hand-crafted, not-quite-finished look. There was also an inherent reaction against the ornate Beaux-Arts style that was also popular at the time. William Morris was A&C’s most notable acolyte, but the movement would also influence Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects.

Soon after the completion of the Wilson Avenue station in 1928, the City would embark on its greatest phase of subway building, the Independent Subway, designed to compete with the BMT and put several of its els, and els run by other companies, out of business, which it eventually succeeded in doing. The IND, BMT and IRT would all fall under the stewardship of NYC in 1940 when they were combined into a single agency that would eventually become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The Canarsie Line by Wayne Whitehorne at nycsubway.org


Your webmaster shot photos for this page in February 2003 and February 2004 and completed writing it June 20, 2004.