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Behind an Old Subway Wall, a Glimpse of an Even Older One (1901 prototype mosaic at Columbus Circle)

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A prototype decorative mosaic from around 1901, before the subway opened, is visible behind the current station wall at 59th Street-Columbus Circle. The uptown No. 1 platform is at the far left.


The old mosaic’s guilloche pattern can be discerned under the decorative plaque by Grueby Faience.


A ceramic plaque found nearby has been restored.



When people compare New York to Rome, the reference is not usually meant to be flattering. But our town shares at least one inspiring quality with the Eternal City. Just about anytime you knock an old wall down, there is an even older wall behind it.


Another keyhole to the past opened recently on the uptown platform of the No. 1 train at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station. Through a gap in the current wall, under one of the ceramic plaques of Columbus’s flagship, an unusual pattern can be discerned dimly: an interwoven guilloche pattern — sort of like a two-dimensional challah crust — in red and yellow mosaic tiles.


Viewed from a perch on the nearby bench, the wall reveals more of itself. (We spread out a newspaper on the seating area, taking advantage of the broad utility of the print medium.) Next to the guilloche border is a large blue-gray mosaic medallion, enclosing a four-lobed pattern known as a quatrefoil. It’s unclear whether it is a true mosaic, with individual tiles, or a mosaic pattern stamped on to a large surface.


What we do know is that it stretches far back into the past; to 1901, in fact, three years before the subway actually opened. In “Silver Connections” (1984), his monumental history and description of the New York subway, Philip Ashforth Coppola described the Columbus Circle station as having played a critical role in the development of the system. “It was virtually the first station to be completed in structural form,” he wrote. “Because of this, the architects used its walls as an art gallery, experimenting with decorative ideas in various colors of tiles and other materials.”


After their brief service at the turn of the century, Mr. Coppola wrote, “all these preliminary experiments were covered over and forgotten.” They were replaced by something far more gorgeous: museum-quality terra cotta ornamentation in the Arts and Crafts style, designed and manufactured by the renowned Grueby Faience Company of Boston. The Grueby artwork has been on public display for 106 years.


But in 2007, at the beginning of the extensive rehabilitation of the station, vestiges of the past started coming back to light again, as the walls that were erected in front of the prototypes were taken down. First to emerge was a blue-and-white Art Nouveau plaque by the American Encaustic Tiling Company.


This plaque has since been restored and is to be relocated elsewhere in the station. The guilloche-and-medallion wall came into public view only recently. It won’t be long before it is reimmured. But there is good news for armchair archaeologists among the straphangers.


“We are well aware of the historical significance of this find,” said Charles F. Seaton, speaking for New York City Transit, “and we are working on a design for a window in the wall so this treasure can be shared with the public at some future date.”


Now, that sounds like something they’d do in Rome.


Source: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/antique-mosaic-comes-to-light-not-far-from-where-the-coliseum-stood/

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I know it's newer, but I wish they had preserved the little IND-style section of wall (with the square tiles) and tablet on the southbound platform. There was nothing older under that, and it still fit in with the rest of the station. They removed that three years ago (when I was working the line), and before they even removed the newer 60's tile.

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I've seen the wall, the tile is about 2 ft - 4 ft total width and run the height of the wall.


I got better pics than what was posted. I will try and get better ones later today.


It seems like a test to see how the tiles are going to look.


I have to see if i can see the station layout of the street, when they were building the station.




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