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A Decorative Piece of Subway History Is Unearthed in a Busy Station

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A Decorative Piece of Subway History Is Unearthed in a Busy Station


New York Times

Published: November 2, 2007



David W. Dunlap/New York Times

The newly discovered Art Nouveau

plaque is embedded in a dirty wall

in the 59th Street subway station.[/float]A lovely little piece of subway history on the uptown platform of the No. 1 line at 59th Street-Columbus Circle — so old it actually antedates the trains — was concealed from generations of riders by a false wall.


With the false wall being removed as part of the station renovation, history has come to light again: a blue-and-white Art Nouveau plaque, with a flowery border (worthy of willow ware) encircling the words, “The Tiles in This Exhibit are the product of the American Encaustic Tiling Co. Limited / Zanesville Ohio / New-York N.Y.”


What exhibit?


It turns out that the 59th Street station was a kind of proving ground for the architects Heins & LaFarge in 1901, three years before the Interborough Rapid Transit Company trains began running through it.


“The architects used its walls as an art gallery, experimenting with decorative ideas in various colors

of tiles and other materials,” Philip Ashforth Coppola wrote in “Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective

on the New York Area Subway Systems” (Four Oceans Press, 1984). “When the real decorating of

Columbus Circle began, all these preliminary experiments were covered over and forgotten.” That is,

until this fall.



David W. Dunlap/New York Times

The blue-and-white plaque was

once part of a gallery maintained

by the architects Heins & LaFarge

for the purpose of testing deco-

rative ideas.[/float]The plaque and the tiles surrounding it, which were also experimental, are cemented into an 18-inch-thick original structural wall, said Paul J. Fleuranges, a New York City Transit vice president. That wall is being removed to provide more passenger space. Complicating an already complex job, Mr. Fleuranges said, “the historical find has presented project managers with another set of problems to solve.”


They plan to cut a segment out of the wall behind the plaque and surrounding tiles, extract that segment and then cut it down further to make it easier to transport and store. In the end, Mr. Fleuranges said, the plaque will be found where a lovely little piece of subway history ought to be: the New York Transit Museum.


At the moment, it is on display for anyone with a MetroCard to see. Diana Agosta, her husband, Ken Wessel, and their son, Leonardo Wessel, were heading home from the Ziegfeld Theater the other night when they caught sight of the plaque. Ms. Agosta took a picture with her cellphone camera.


“It seemed that the drab, 1960-ish wall had been stripped away and this perfect, gorgeous tile — decorated like a teacup — just appeared,” she said. “Even though New York is not an ancient city like Rome, it’s fascinating to me that when you look around, you so often see little remnants of the past like this.”





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This is a great find. Its goods that this piece will be preserved. But I think the MTA should be investing some money into another NYTM (a new one) and/or preserve or restore more buses and trains. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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I love to see that good old subway history, it's everywhere, hiding behind walls and in the darkness. City Hall could be a new branch of the museum, but I'd hate to see what they'd do to it (ugh, exhibits covering up the tiles and whatnot), but there are plenty o' places for a transit museum, but really, Court Street was the best as it was just a little used stub unlike other abandoned stations.

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