I was fascinated by the subway tiles while we were in New York recently. They caught my attention first because some were older than others. Then I noticed the different coloured bands around the designator tiles at different stations and on different lines. So as you do when you want to find out something we went to the New York Public Library to investigate.
Couldn’t help wondering “who you gonna call?” as we entered the Library. So many people about taking photos, with the local filling many of the spaces for study.
We joined the Library and requested our books in the Architecture Library. Beautiful small study space away from the crowds.
I found that William Barclay Parsons and Heins and LaFarge were the two companies responsible for the tiling of the subway in the early 1900’s. Parsons believed that the subway should be beautiful and chose ceramic tile. Heins and LaFarge agreed that ceramics are beautiful but thought they should be utilitarian as well – rapid and easy identification of a persons whereabouts. So together they came up with the plan: Name the station and name the neighbourhood.
Station names would be spelled out surrounded by decorative borders and some stations would have symbols identifying the neighbourhoods; ceramic beavers in Astor Place, The Eagle Shield 33 at 33rd, Robert Fulton’s Steamer paddling up the Hudson at Fulton St, Dutch Colonial house protected by old wooden stockade at Wall St (that’s how it got it’s name) and Spanish Ship bringing Christopher Columbus.
All the designs were elegant, elaborate, flowery and projected out.
Around 1911 Squire J. Vickers followed the plan regarding identification and neighbourhood, but his work was flat and rectangular. He believed it was more practical if the designs were flatter – there would be less dust.
Station names would be white tile with coloured background but framed in simple rectangles with a border of individual coloured mosaic tiles laid flat on the wall. He thought “the irregularity is quite necessary for if it was regular the charm would be lost”.
Vickers abandoned neighbourhood symbols but elaborated on city scenes which he took from historic prints; A tavern on Canal St, Peter Stuyvesant’s house on Whitehall St and Brooklyn Heights waterfront on Clark St.
Some were designed by Vickers and others by J Van Everen and Herbert Dole.
In 1930 ornamentation was abandoned altogether. There was still coloured tiles – violet, blue, green, yellow and red – but they formed flat bands running the length of each station. Colour was now code with wide bands at express stops and narrow bands of alternate colour at local stops.
Vickers explained the coding, “50th St is violet, 59th is blue and the 7 locals to the north are also blue. In the stations south of 42nd St 2 shades of the same colour are used . In the stations north of 42nd St the colour is used with a black border. A person on a north bound train who observes a blue band with a black border knows he’s in a Central Park zone.”
The abstract geometric feel of the tiles suggests that subway design had finally surrendered to the machine age. For the following decades no new decorative ceramics were added to the subway.
Today the ceramics are being restored and not removed. Some stations art is being added to.