New York City Subway tiles
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Many New York City Subway stations are decorated with colorful ceramic plaques and tile mosaics. Of these, many take the form of signs, identifying the station's location. Much of this ceramic work was in place when the subway system originally opened on October 27, 1904. Newer work continues to be installed each year, much of it cheerful and fanciful.
Heins & LaFarge (1901–1907)
The earliest ceramic work was done by Heins & LaFarge (artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge), starting in 1901 and continuing up to 1907. Heins and LaFarge were both relatives of John LaFarge (brother-in-law and son, respectively), a leading stained-glass artisan of the day. They were part of the Arts and Crafts movement and worked in the Beaux-Arts architecture style, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At the time of their hiring they had completed large projects at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Bronx Zoo. As well as designing the artistic motifs, Heins & LaFarge also did much of the architectural work that determined the overall appearance of entire subway stations.
They knew what materials would stand up well to heavy-duty cleaning and scrubbing; they worked with the ceramic-producing firms Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. Their ceramic artwork includes colorful pictorial motifs relevant to a station's location, for example:
- The South Ferry loop station is decorated by 15 bas-relief representations of a sailing ship on the water.
- The Astor Place station is decorated with large ceramic beaver emblems, representing the beaver pelts that helped make John Jacob Astor wealthy.
- The 116th Street – Columbia University station includes a bas-relief emblem representing nearby Columbia University.
Their bas-reliefs in the subway have been likened to the work of the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Della Robbia. Much of their tile work was station-identifying signs to guide passengers. Besides serving an aesthetic function, the images are helpful to New York City's large population of non-English speakers and those who can't read. A traveler can be told to "get off at the stop with the picture of a beaver."
As well as pictorial plaques and ceramic signs, Heins and LaFarge designed the running decorative motifs, such as egg-and-dart patterns, along station ceilings.
Squire Vickers (1906–1942)
In 1906 Squire J. Vickers, then a young architect, was hired. Vickers showed much respect for Heins and LaFarge, but his work consists much more of mosaics; he did not use bas-relief, citing the need for easy cleaning. In his pictorial work, Vickers emphasizes actual buildings as landmarks, such as his colorful depiction of Brooklyn Borough Hall (1919) at the station of that name, rather than Heins & LaFarge's beavers and sailing ships. He describes his technique:
|“||"...the mosaic was of the cut variety, that is, the body is burned in strips, glazed, and then broken into irregular shapes. The designs are set by hand and shipped in sections with paper pasted on the front. These sections are set against the wall flush with the tile. In certain stations the color bands and name tablets are a combination of mosaic and hand-made tile"||”|
Vickers continued to work on subway projects for 36 years, until 1942.
The tiles used in the Independent Subway System (IND) are all in a specific pattern. With one exception, these groupings follow the same order: (going outbound): Purple, Blue, Green, Yellow, and Red. The exception is on the IND Fulton Street Line: Utica Avenue/Ralph Avenue/Rockaway Avenue (red family) is followed by blue family stations, Broadway Junction, Liberty Avenue, Van Siclen Avenue, and Shepherd Avenue, then purple (Euclid Avenue), then green (Grant Avenue). As one goes away from Manhattan, the color of the tiles changes; thus, a local station that comes directly west of an express station has the same color tiles as the next express station away from Manhattan. This is presumably to facilitate transfers for travelers going away from Manhattan. Express stations have wider tile bands than local stations, except on certain stations on the lower portion of the IND Eighth Avenue Line, where the station walls have been refurbished. Tablets are simple, with a common design, and black tile with white letters spell out the station name on the wall.
Most pre-1955 IND stations have tile plaques with the station name, as well as a colored stripe with black borders, on the platforms or track walls. Tile plaques only exist in stations where there is a wall next to the platform. The number of tiles between the stripes are 2 tiles for local stations and three for express/transfer stations. Several original stations that were renovated, such as Lexington Avenue / 53rd Street, have no color.
The IND Crosstown Line, having no express stations, uses three forms of green in its tile bands, with light green indicating transfer stations. (Broadway was planned as a transfer to an IND Second System line; thus, the walls at Broadway have three rows of tiles, rather than the two rows of tiles found on other Crosstown Line stations' walls).
Several subway stations have new ceramics and mosaics, bringing color and cheer underground.
- The 28th Street station on the BMT Broadway Line features the fanciful "City Dwellers" mosaic by Mark Hadjipateras.
- The Houston Street station on the IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line displays "Platform Diving" by Deborah Brown.
- The 81st Street – Museum of Natural History station on the IND Eighth Avenue Line has "For Want of a Nail" by the MTA Arts for Transit Design Team.
- The Prince Street station on the BMT Broadway Line shows "Carrying On", an artwork by Janet Zweig.
- The Cathedral Parkway – 110th Street station on the IND Eighth Avenue Line boasts "Migration" by artist Christopher Wynter.
- The 191st Street station on the IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line has been renovated with reproductions of its original tile work.
- Subway Art Guide
- Forgotten New York
- History of the Independent Subway
- IND Station Tile Colors
- New Exhibits
- Artwork: City Dwellers (Mark Hadjipateras)
- Artwork: Platform Diving (Deborah Brown)
- Artwork: For Want of a Nail (MTA Arts for Transit)
- Artwork: Carrying On (Janet Zweig)
- Artwork: Migrations (Christopher Wynter)
- Sapulding, Lee (2010). Subway Mosaics: New York City, CreateSpace. ISBN 9781453730881
- Stookey, Lee (1994). Subway Ceramics. North Haven, CT: William J. Mack Co.
|Look up subway tile in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to New York City Subway mosaics.|
- MTA Arts for Transit-The Official NYC Subway Art and Rail Art Guide
- Forgotten New York - New Mosaics
- Subway Art Guide
- SubwayCeramics Historically-authentic subway tile
- The History of Subway Tile