Signs of the Times in a New York Subway

Photos by Wini Lao

Among the millions that rely on New York City’s subway system, only a few commuters might notice against the grim and crowds of the dark tunnels perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the scene. Some may notice the subway mosaics of the stations only to confirm whether they’re at the right or wrong station, but to actually stare and marvel them for what they are is quite a rare moment.

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The Bleecker Street station sign, in the spirit of Beaux Arts.

The Subway system is as old as the 1890s, and these signs are a testament to its age and enduring legacy. Hoping to fulfill the idea of “the City Beautiful” aesthetic for urban planning at the turn of the century, the architectural firm Heins and LeFarge opted for ornate glazed signs that captured the rising popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement. Subtle depictions of images or scenes relating to the names of each station were inserted like sailboats at the South Ferry Loop or beavers to pay homage to beaver pelt magnate John Jacob Astor, giving beautiful depth and significance to each. Ceramics that withstood heavy scrubbing and cleaning pulled their vision together, creating a visually exciting and yet utilizing piece of the subway system.

By 1908 the firm was replaced with the simpler visions of Squire J. Vickers, leading the signs into a revival of more geometric-based “machine-age” mosaics that better fit the budget restraints of the city. The bas-relief terra cotta was mostly done away with in most stations for less maintenance, and to better help travelers around, Vickers color-keyed local stations to the nearest express stations. Vickers’ designs still dictate the more modern deco looks associated now with the subway, seen in over 300 signs across the boroughs today and even iconic with its style mimicked by modern businesses like Noah’s Bagels.

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Best identifiable in the style of Vickers’ are the layers of contrasting colors that border the main sign.

It might do little to help enhance any beauty to be found below in the subway stations, but the signs remind New Yorkers and tourists about the wonder and magic of the Big Apple, America’s city with roots deep into the founding and forever dream-chasing ethics of this popular metropolis.

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Read more about these magnificent markers at NY Subway Mosaics.

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