An Upper West Side Art Nouveau–like subway sign

You don’t have to be a typeface nerd to appreciate loveliness the letters and numerals affixed to plaques and signs in the city’s earliest subway stations.

My favorite is the “96” at the Broadway and 96th Street station. Opened in 1904 as part of the original IRT line, it looks like the numerals were created by hand, not a printing press.

Thanks to the rosettes, green coloring, and what look like two tulips framing the numerals, this plaque across from the platform also looks like a rare examples of the naturalistic Art Nouveau design style—which swept Europe in the early 20th century but didn’t make much of an impression in New York, save for some building facades.

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18 Responses to “An Upper West Side Art Nouveau–like subway sign”

  1. David Handelman Says:

    They stopped using this style when they realized how much dirt built up on them and how hard they were to clean — that’s why the stations built after that first round (which were by Heinz and LaFarge) have all flat tile (under subway architect Squire Vickers)

  2. 3Q2HQ Says:

    For Misha

    Sent from my iPad Air


  3. Zoe Says:

    I love early subway tiles/ornament. This *is* a beautiful one Ephemeral… I love the tulips ❤

    On a somewhat darker note! I noticed that the repeating recessed border contains swastikas. Of course I wasn't even looking for that! I am an artist/goldsmith (have looked at/drawn/fabricated lots of gilded borders!) & this popped out at me. Then when I looked again I had to *search* for what I saw previously. So if you don't see it straight away — look again focusing only on the recessed part of the border.

    Of course this was made long before Hitler & Nazi propagandists subverted this ancient motif — used worldwide — for their evil agenda: so I am not suggesting any political motivation here. There is a fascinating book (released in the last decade) on the subject of this image/symbol throughout time (ancient to present & worldwide) & how it has been used/misused & varied opinions from multiple cultures. (Inc. a Jewish person who said that seeing it from Tibetan sources does not bother him/her at all whilst seeing it elsewhere does). The author is Jewish American & it is not an apology for it's use as a Nazi symbol/Naziism. I haven't read the book but it probably has examples such as the ornamental design shown here.

    • trilby1895 Says:

      I never would have picked up on that, Zoe, so thank you for pointing it out. You are extremely observant; must be a very capable artist. Details are SO important!

    • Zoe Says:

      Correction: (re. repeating swastika motif) I meant to write ‘focusing on the RAISED part of the recessed border’…

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Just another note about the swastika motif: I did notice this, but considering that it’s an ancient symbol, as you point out Zoe, it didn’t feel like anything to make a big deal out of. I have seen tenement buildings with swastika designs on the entrance hallway…it was a common motif with a very long backstory!

  4. Walk About New York Says:

    Tulips were used throughout the 1904 subway station ID plaques as a tribute to New York’s Dutch roots, Nieuw Amsterdam. Our Subway Art Tours [] include a number of the original subway stations. Take the Tour; Know More!

    • Zoe Says:

      Thanks for telling us about this Walk About New York! One more thing to put on the list!

      It sounds like ‘Walk About New York’ is done by British English speakers (inc. Canadian/Australian/New Zealander etc.) since New Yorkers & other US Americans would say ‘Walk Around New York’. Will we be shown our city by appreciative *outsiders*? 🙂

    • trilby1895 Says:

      Walk About, thank you for that tulip tip and Dutch origins! Also, I’m sure I will soon find myself on one of your Walk About tours….can’t wait!

  5. Robert Gilims Says:

    nice post thanks for sharing….

  6. Bill Greenwald Says:

    They look like they were hammered out by hand by an artisan, perhaps from a wooden form first formed and then the metal hammered out, since both plaques have the same rough hand made look

    • Zoe Says:

      I have always believed these ornamental tiles made for various stations were/are ceramic.

      There were ceramic tile companies that made beautiful versions for private homes as well. I rented an apartment in Prospect Park Brooklyn on Sterling Place in what was formerly a townhouse & what had been the master bedroom bathroom in the floor below me had stellar examples of this type of bas relief ornamental tile. The building was from the same era as these subway stations (of course as the new subway brought the wealthy middle class out to Brooklyn in large numbers then). These sort of tiles were also used for the ornamental border of fireplaces.

      A few decades ago someone had purchased old moulds from a defunct company of that era & began a company to recreate & sell them to preservationists & builders & decorators etc.

      I would be surprised if these were/are “metal”.

      • Zoe Says:

        *I meant to write ‘Prospect Heights’ NOT “Prospect Park”! Although it would have been a lovely adventure to live IN the park in the circumstances I described! (Vs. wrapped in my coat on a bench etc.).

  7. Sonia Lal Says:

    very pretty. can’t say as I ever paid much attention to the subway signs, but it is pretty.

  8. Untapped Staff Reads: The Met Celebrates “Basil E. Frankweiler” Show Anniversary, Original Sunset Park Arsenal Covered-Up | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] An Upper West Side Art Nouveau–like subway sign [Ephemeral New York]: You don’t have to be a typeface nerd to appreciate loveliness the letters and numerals affixed to plaques and signs in the city’s earliest subway stations. […]

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