Rushing by the relics of the Union Square subway

The concrete maze that is the Union Square/14th Street subway stop is a patchwork of what was once three subway stations built in 1904, 1918, and 1930.

It doesn’t have a lot of charm, but it does have subway history—especially in the form of the six crumbling pieces of masonry, tile, and terra cotta all in a line on the mezzanine level that bridges the various train lines.

These are the remnants of the original walls of the 1904 IRT station. Long thought to have been lost to the ages, they were unearthed during a 1997 renovation and then incorporated into a permanent art exhibit the following year.

Next time you’re rushing from the L to the 6, stop and take a look at them, and behold subway history.

“Artist Mary Miss created standalone panels using historic architectural elements recovered during the renovation of the 14th Street/Union Square station complex,” states the always-informative

“The six ’14’ eagles were original elements of the 1904 station construction but most were hidden in disused side platforms along the Contract One IRT route.”

The photo above, from Joseph Brennan’s Abandoned Stations site (originally included in the Board of Rapid Tansit Railroad Commissioners’ year-end report for 1903), shows the eagles against a station wall.

Miss’ urban archeology exhibit includes dozens of other subway remains scattered across the staircases, passageways, and platforms of the station, all of which have the same red border as the subway walls.

These relics, “offer a sense of intimate engagement: to look into one of the framed spaces is as though a secret is being sought and slowly revealed,” states Miss on her website. It’s something to think about next time you’re transferring trains.

[Third Photo: Abandoned Stations by Joseph Brennan]

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8 Responses to “Rushing by the relics of the Union Square subway”

  1. Zoé Says:

    I never knew this before. So there were three separate lines & not connected; each w/ their own station? All w/ their entrance at the edge of the park? Or I’ve got it wrong. Very confusing…

    I guess this explains why so many of our larger stations resemble(d) hastily assembled piles of sheetrock painted in industrial (please don’t make us look at that anymore) neutral shades. So sad after the artisanal effort put in earlier on.

  2. Dymoon Says:

    this is so “cool” love it..

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’m not exactly sure how the 3 separate stations merged back then, but I use this station regularly today and it’s quite a wide span of passageways and staircases.

    There used to be an 18th Street subway station on the 4,5, and 6 line, and at some point early in the 20th century they lengthened the 14th Street platform and closed 18th Street. You can still see the ghost station, though, as the train pulls toward 23rd St.

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    This is always one of my favorite stations to use or walk through, because of the restored, preserved, and displayed historic artwork. There used to be a giant wooden “14 St.” sign on the IRT station, which found a better home in the Transit Museum when Helvetica Font took over.

    Another interesting feature in the station are the movable platforms on the downtown IRT platforms, which date back to about 1921 or thereabouts, and have been operating ever since, to my amazement. The only other station that still has them is Times Square — the shuttle.

    They had them on the original South Ferry outer curve, of course. They were removed after the station was closed, and after Sandy wrecked the new station, re-installed to re-open the old station. Now the new station is open again, so I have no idea what is happening with those platforms….I guess they are being used for spare parts.

    Union Square is always fun to walk through.

    • Zoé Says:

      Don’t forget the tiles depicting beavers one stop down at Astor Place; to honour Jacob Astor’s very lucrative early profession – David. 🏹🏞💂🏻🎩🗽

      Happy Passover/Pascha (Easter) everyone! 🐬🌊🏔🌲🌞

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’m amazed by the movable platforms too…almost 100 years, and as far as I know they have never malfunctioned and led people into a crack and onto the rails!

    • Zoé Says:

      I hope the other subway dwellers whose permanent home it is 🐀🐀🐀 can say the same…

      Happy Passover/Easter Ephemeral 🌲

    • David H Lippman Says:

      Given they were installed in 1921, it is an amazing feat. After all, the machinery that makes them run must not be available any more for replacement parts..

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