Saturday, September 1, 2012

Subway Tiles--Part III, the Squire Vickers Era

(All photos were taken in 2012 by Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)
A "Vickers eagle" mosaic tile panel that replaced a Grueby faience eagle which was possibly damaged at the IRT #6, 33rd Street station (color enhanced)


    “...the first subway, which ran from City Hall to Broadway and 145th Street and opened in October 1904, was constructed by a company called Interborough Rapid Transit [the IRT line, designated by numbers], even though the first route was Manhattan-only. Soon, lines were built into Brooklyn, justifying the name. Beginning in the 1910s, a company called Brooklyn Rapid Transit built a network of surface lines and subways between Brooklyn and Manhattan; when that company went bankrupt after a train crash in a tunnel at Malbone Street, Brooklyn, in 1918, it reorganized as Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, or the BMT [, designated by letters starting with "L"]. Finally, in the mid-1920s, the City of New York began planning and building its own set of subway lines, called the Independent [the IND line, designated by letters from "A" to "H"].” (http://forgotten-ny.com/2012/03/high-street-station/)

(Most of the mosaic plaques were dingy, damaged and/or filthy and had to be edited in some way)
Mosaic train engine, Grand Central Station (color enhanced)

     The architects George C. Heins & Christopher G. LaFarge presided over the original IRT construction from 1901 to about 1907. Overlapping Heins & LaFarge at the end of their contract was Squire J. Vickers (1872-1947), an architect contracted by the City in 1906 to oversee some of the IRT construction, and in 1913, the IRT/BMT "dual contract" lines and, later, the City-owned IND. Vickers worked for the subway system until 1943. We have already discussed the tile ornamentation during the Heins & LaFarge period (see "Subway Tiles--Parts I and II"). The decorative tilework was distinctly different under Squire Vickers. (An excellent bibliography of the history of the dual contract lines is at http://www.nycsubway.org/ wiki/The_Dual_Contracts)
City Hall Station, historic mosaic panel, "R" train platform (color enhanced)
     "It is clear that Vickers oversaw all of the design work and had a strong hand in choosing the material to be used. ...We...know that at least four [historic plaques] were done by Vicker's Cornell friend, Jay Van Everen, who was then painting in New York. ...In his painting Van Everen was influenced by Synchromist painters who were experimenting with unconventional use of color. ...there is clear evidence that...[Van Everen] created...[these] plaques: 14th Street/Union Square and Canal Street on the BMT; 125th Street and Clark Street on the IRT." (Lee Stookey, Subway Ceramics: A History and Iconography, published by Lee Stookey, Brooklyn, NY, 1992, pp. 60-62)
Although much of the original mosaic tilework is gone from Union Square, there are some preserved sections of it. This was probably designed by Jay Van Everen.
     "Another of the designers was Vickers' Cornell friend, Herbert Dole... . ...Vickers credited him with 'most' of the historic plaques. He designed the small hexagonal plaques set in fine mosaic bands at Christopher and Canal Streets, as well as the...bolder plaque at Borough Hall on the 7th Avenue [IRT line]." (Lee Stookey, Subway Ceramics: A History and Iconography, published by Lee Stookey, Brooklyn, NY, 1992, p. 62)
Herbert Dole's historic plaque at Borough Hall, Brooklyn
Borough Hall mosaic name plaque (color enhanced)
     According to one reviewer of the Transit Museum's 2007 exhibit, “Squire Vickers and the Subway’s Modern Age,” "[f]or both aesthetic and budgetary reasons Vickers pushed the subway onto a much more pared-down, modern path than that of his Beaux-Arts predecessors." Vickers and his designers used "...quiltlike geometric abstractions, evoking Piet Mondrian and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, [which] began to put a straight edge to the subway’s swoops and curlicues, its terra-cotta cornucopias and floral medallions. ...Mosaic elements were made flat, for example, in part 'to avoid dust ledges,' ...[Vickers] wrote, so they would be cheaper to clean. They could also be set by hand in the factory instead of piece by piece on the wall, making them less expensive to install. And yet, in many places, in design elements like...flat mosaic picture plaque[s,]...Vickers was still able pull off beautiful low-cost effects." (Randy Kennedy, "Underground Renaissance Man: Watch the Aesthetic Walls, Please" in The New York Times, August 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/arts/ design/03subw.html?pagewanted=all)
Historic plaque at Chambers Street, #1 Platform
     “The Chambers Street station was among the first underground stations built by Brooklyn Rapid Transit, the predecessor of the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit). Hence, the stations under Centre Street, Chambers, Canal, and Bowery, look somewhat different from the BMT stations that followed it. The BMT used a diamond pattern  
in station art, but here it shows up on the ID plaques as well as sanserif lettering.
     Beginning later in the 1910s, the BRT/BMT would shift to serifed letters, which in turn reverted back to sanserif with the IND in the 1930s.” (http://forgotten-ny.com/2012/04/back-in-chambers/)

Mosaic-tiled diamond motifs and station names with serif lettering, "J" train platform at Fulton Street, Manhattan
Mosaic "TS" diamond panel in Times Square

     "[Vickers']...works include the following New York subway stations, all of which are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

In Manhattan:
181st Street Subway Station (IND), Fort Washington Avenue between 185th and 181st Streets; A train
190th Street Subway Station (IND), under Fort Washington Avenue between Fort Tryon Park (Cabrini Boulevard) and W. 190th Street; A train
86th Street Subway Station (Dual System IRT), under Lexington Avenue, between E. 85th and E. 87th Streets; 4, 5,6 trains
West 28th Street Subway Station (Dual System IRT), Seventh Avenue between W. 26th and W. 29th Streets; 1, 2 trains
West Fourth Street Subway Station (IND), under Sixth Avenue between W. 3rd Street and Waverly Place; A, B, C, D, E, F, M trains
Chambers Street Subway Station (Dual System IRT), under West Broadway between Warren, Chambers and Reade Streets; 1, 2, 3 trains

In Brooklyn:
Ninth Avenue Station (Dual System BMT), 38th Street and Ninth Avenue near the junction of New Utrecht Avenue; D train
Avenue U Station (Dual System BMT), between Avenue U and Avenue T and Seventh and Eighth Streets; N train
Bay Parkway Station (Dual System BMT), above Bay Parkway at 86th Street; D train
New Utrecht Avenue Station (Dual System BMT), beneath the junction of New Utrecht Avenue with 15th Avenue and 62nd Street; N train
Ocean Parkway Station (Dual System BMT), above the junction of Brighton Beach Avenue and Ocean Parkway; Q train
Wilson Avenue Subway Station (Dual System BMT), Chauncey Street at Wilson Avenue; L train

In the Bronx:
Pelham Parkway Station (Dual System IRT), junction of White Plains Road and Pelham Parkway; 2, 5 trains
Westchester Square Station (Dual System IRT), above Westchester Avenue, from Overing Street to Ferris Place; 6 train
Woodlawn Station (Dual System IRT), junction of Bainbridge Avenue and Jerome Avenue; 4 train

In Queens:
Court Square Station (Dual System IRT), above 23rd Street between 44th Drive and 45th Road, Long Island City; 7 train
Main Street Subway Station (Dual System IRT), near junction of Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street, Flushing; 7 train" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squire_J._Vickers)

Whitehall Street mosaic panel, "R" train station (enhanced)

Court Street station, Brooklyn mosaic tile panel, "R" platform (enhanced)

"L" train station at Union Square, Manhattan

     Elevated stations provided their own decorative problems to be solved by Vickers. "In one essay Vickers explained frankly why elevated stations, as any frequent subway rider can now see, ended up badly short-changed in the design department: 'Our attempts to beautify have been of little avail, except in certain cases, on account of the cost.'" (Randy Kennedy, "Underground Renaissance Man: Watch the Aesthetic Walls, Please" in The New York Times, August 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/arts/ design/03subw.html?pagewanted=all)
Tile work on and between the concrete support columns. (From S.J. Vickers, "The Architectural Treatment of Special Elevated Stations of the Dual System, New York City", Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Vol. III, No. 11, November 1915, p. 501)
Vickers further explains that in the elevated stations a "systematic effort has also been made to simplify the detail and eliminate all ornament, admitting frankly the utilitarian nature of the structures. Although these stations will be orderly, we cannot hope they will be beautiful because of the conditions imposed. ...Inlaid colored tile is used where it seems desirable to add interest to the structure. A hand-made glazed tile with a semi-vitreous back is used... . The tile is set flush with the concrete in order that the surface may be enriched and still retain its simplicity." (From S.J. Vickers, "The Architectural Treatment of Special Elevated Stations of the Dual System, New York City", Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Vol. III, No. 11, November 1915, pp. 501-502)
The 33rd Street/Rawson Street/Queens Blvd. station, #7 train
Ft. Hamilton Parkway/New Utrecht Ave. station, "D" and "M" trains


Tiles installed in the station's concrete

     In later years, "as subway projects lurched through the Depression[,]...many of his aesthetic decisions were driven by the bottom line." (Randy Kennedy, "Underground Renaissance Man:...")


The Woodlawn (Bronx) IRT elevated station with exterior tiling. 1924 photo from http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/show?41758. David Pirmann collection.

     There are a few works that should be kept in mind if you're interested in the subway system and in subway art. Philip Ashforth Coppola's self-published, multi-volume Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective on the New York Area Subway Systems, is not generally available, but can most likely be located in a library. Lee Stookey's self-published Subway Ceramics: A History and Iconography, published in Brooklyn, NY in 1992 can be purchased online. And, one online resource that I found indispensable was http://www.nycsubway.org/.

     For preservationists the condition of subway art and the seeming lack of interest by the MTA is a constant problem. A recent article by two Daily News writers notes that "A survey of three lines - the No. 6, the No. 1 and the L train - uncovered century-old tile nameplates and artwork that are falling apart because of neglect.  Missing and chipped tiles, water and rust stains, and thick cracks mar dozens of station decorations that should be the system's crowning glory. ...the decay...is only corrected when a station undergoes a top-to-bottom rehabilitation." (Caitlan Millat and Tracy Connor, "Subway ceramics in shameful state", New York Daily News, July 21, 2012, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/subway-ceramics-shameful-state-article-1.306133)

     An earlier New York Times article about nominating the entire subway system to the National Register for Historic Places stated that "Preservationists still bemoan Philip Johnson's makeover of the 49th Street station, blanketed with shiny orange tiles in 1975. 'Cheer is the word, like a big shopping center,' Mr. Johnson announced at the time. Or the demolition of the Bowling Green station starting in 1972, when huge red tiles replaced elegant mosaic name panels and neo-classical designs by Heins and LaFarge, who designed the 1904 and 1908 subway projects... . Or the alterations to the Broadway and 103d Street station, where classic white glazed brick-shaped tiles and at least one terra cotta escutcheon were covered by what [...one critic] called 'penal colony modern' beige walls. Or the destruction of almost all the distinctive above-ground kiosks, carted away in the 1960's, ostensibly because they blocked the sight lines of traffic. 'The real reason,' Mr. Tauranac said, 'is because they'd been neglected. The cast iron and glass were leaking.'" (Tracie Rozhon, "TURF; On the Express Track to Venerability", The New York Times, October 29, 1998,  http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/29/garden/turf-on-the-express-track-to-venerability.html?pagewanted=1)

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