Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Surf Avenue lit up by electricity and moonlight

August 6, 2018

It’s a full moon on this summer night along Surf Avenue at Coney Island. It’s the late 1920s, electricity is illuminating restaurant and theater marquees; cars and trolleys cruise the road.

There’s a Nedick’s, the old hot dog chain, and a chop suey place, serving that invented Chinese dish. The moon shines bright over the Cyclone, which must have been just built; it dates to 1927.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.2119]

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Excavating Penn Station by fire and lamp light

June 25, 2018

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of the demolition of the original Penn Station from 1963.

Much more inspiring, however, is this painting, which chronicles the building of the Beaux Arts station in 1908. Construction hasn’t begun yet; social realist painter George Bellows gives us the excavation of the land where Penn Station will eventually rise and open in 1910.

There’s magic here—thanks to the lamps ringing the excavation site and tenements across the street. Slightly eerie is the orange glow of a fire deep in the pit and images of nearby figures keeping watch over things, perhaps.

Bellows must have had a fascination with the building of Penn Station, as he painted this daytime image as well.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

Faces in the shadow of the Third Avenue El

April 16, 2018

New Yorkers no longer plow through the sky on hulking elevated trains. But the great crowds of commuters and the traffic below the steel rails feels very familiar.

John Sloan’s Six O’Clock, Winter gives us the scene under the Third Avenue El in 1912. (Not the Sixth Avenue El, the subject of some of his other paintings.)

“The shop girls, clerks, and working men and women who are massed in the lower part of the canvas seem absorbed in their own actions, rushing to their various destinations, generally unaware of the huge elevated railway looming high above them,” states the website of the Phillips Collection.

“The figures are illuminated by the glow of the train’s electric lights from above and from the shops at street level, with those in the lower left of the composition cast in strong light. Loosely brushed in, the faces have a masklike appearance, while those on the right are almost hidden in shadow, obscuring their features.”

Rushing by the relics of the Union Square subway

March 26, 2018

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 nycsubway.org.

“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]

Decayed shells of two lovely Bronx train stations

February 12, 2018

It’s a strip mall that has seen better days—a long, two-story shell of a building housing a chicken joint, a pizza and gyro shop, and a couple of other businesses in the shadow of the Bronx’s Bruckner Expressway.

But a closer look reveals some curious details—like the pointed dormer windows set inside a barn-like sloping roof. This stretch of retail had to start out as something more majestic.

Turns out it did: It was the Hunts Point Avenue railroad station, built in 1909 by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—which anticipated a huge demand for train service in the once-bucolic Bronx, thanks to subway development and a population boom.

An even biggest surprise than seeing the remains of such a lovely station is the name of the architect behind it: Cass Gilbert, better known as the genius behind the Woolworth Building and the Custom House at the foot of Broadway, among other architectural beauties.

The station is one of several that Gilbert designed in the Bronx, and he  seemed to have a lot of fun with this one.

The Hunts Point station was French Renaissance in design,” states this Lehman College site. “It had a wide overhanging hipped roof with pointed lacy dormer windows, spires, tiling and crenellations.”

The station connected commuters to Grand Central until the 1930s, when a lack of passengers made it financially impossible to keep open. At some point, it was repurposed for retail, its ornaments stripped off or obscured beneath 1970s-style roll-down gates and a hulking freeway.

Another of Gilbert’s Bronx railroad stations also pretty much lies in ruin: the Westchester Avenue station.

This terra cotta jewel was built in 1908 by the same railroad and it too shut down in the 1930s. Today it remains under the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway and besides Concrete Plant Park, abandoned.

[Second photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1841; fourth photo: Architectural Record, 1908; fifth photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1842; sixth photo: Wikipedia]

In 1912, everyone was doing the Subway Glide

February 5, 2018

How long have New Yorkers been complaining about cramped subways and speeding, lurching trains? (And the violation of personal space that happens when too many people are crammed in car?)

At least since 1912, eight years after the subway opened—when lyricist Arthur Gillespie and musician Theodore Norman put together this zippy little song, the “Subway Glide.”

With lyrics like “rush in, crush in, reach for a handle strap, then turn right around and flop in a lady’s lap,” it may offend the sensibilities of modern subway riders.

Give it a listen here and consider adding it to your commute playlist.

[Image: NYPL]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]