For a general appreciation of where you are, it helps to know who came before you and what was done. Especially if it helps you now.
—Philip Copp in “One Track Mind”
In 1978, Philip Copp intended to spend a month working on an article about the art in New York City subway stations that he hoped to sell to a magazine. Today, thirty-four years later, Copp has probably not spent a day during which he did not work on this “article,” now a multi-volume collection of books, some self-published in limited edition and some in manuscript form.
Copp is now working on his Portfolio Series, where each portfolio of the series will detail one line of the subway system, the first of which is due out later this year. In advance of its publication, we have asked Copp to tell us a bit about his journeys through the NYC subway (and elevated) system and his plans for the future.
A Brief History of Silver Connections
by Phil Copp
I began my study of New York City subway station interiors in 1978 – at first out of curiosity, to find those tile pictures I’d heard of long ago, and to learn their stories. But soon I realized that the MTA, at that time, pursued a policy of resurfacing stations with big bland tiles. Any station which had become inconveniently old, dingy, or pocked, with gaps in its tiles or mosaics, stood in line for an MTA make-over. Two timely examples were Bowling Green (1905) and the IRT’s Cortlandt Street (1917) station, both heedlessly impersonalized in the mid/late 1970’s. Bowling Green got a new red wall, as an “experiment” to see how an old station could be completely modernized from the ground up. Cortland Street got walls of beige bricks – perhaps to give it a sleek finish in the style of the World Trade Center, upstairs. As I dug deeper into my study, I heard of the Brooklyn Bridge (1904) side platforms, not seen since the early 1960’s, and the IRT’s 14th Street/Union Square (1904) side platforms, sealed up, maybe, in 1910—neither of these the MTA’s doing, but still part of the system’s pervasive loss. And I saw whole routes gone under: the BMT’s Broadway (Manhattan) line, and their Fourth Avenue (Brooklyn) line. These were both given the big tile treatment in the 1970’s, also. The Authority seemed dismissive of the irreplaceable mosaic intricacies, artistry, and craftsmanship inherited from prior transit authorities of an earlier era, in a different New York City. With the possibility of unending losses like this, the light study I first envisioned developed into a serious journey through the whole system.
But the MTA has had a change of heart and mind since the mid-1980’s. Now they essentially preserve their heritage and, in some exalted cases, have found an artisan who can replicate 90-year-old mosaic patterns, to repair gaps where necessary. But still, there are anomalies: 23rd & Lex. (1904), re-done; N. 3rd Ave & 149th St, Bronx (1905), re-done; and 137th & B’wy (1904), re-done, although two 1922 name panels there are retained. All of them were re-imaged in the mid/late 1980’s. And now the 42nd St. (1904) shuttle platforms have been obscured and thoroughly commercialized in this Century.
Since the end of World War II, there have been five complete stations abandoned, in one year or another, plus there are bits and pieces and areas of stations sealed from the public, and others begun but not finished and buried, so that the transit system, besides the travelways obviously active to all commuters, is a maze of mystery and lost spaces beyond and besides. There’s a lot of New York – this unique niche of New York – and New York history being lost to the ravages of time. My purpose for creating this record is focused on two goals: to preserve the design formats and ceramic icons, in text and drawing, of all of the NYC subway stations as they originally appeared when first opened to the public, and to give credit to those who created the formatted designs for those stations – as well as the manufacturers who fashioned those plaques and mosaics from the architects’ plans.
That second goal has enlarged the project’s scope to include the persons inseparable from the construction of the system: contractors, engineers, city or state authorities, and the financier of the IRT only, as far as I am aware. I got caught up in the history of the construction because, learning more as my research progressed, the whole story fascinates me – and I believe those players ought to be recognized. Besides, the construction and the design are interrelated, and the story of one leads into the other. And so, for Volumes I, II, III, and IV, my primary message delivers the oldest stations in word and picture, and my secondary focus, in company with the first, spotlights the architects, engineer/architects, and craftspeople. I wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that they have all (excepting Mr. Belmont and his equine legacy) been lost to the passage of time and events.
By my count, there are 496 stations in the system – not counting the “new” lines: Parsons Boulevard, Archer Avenue, and the 63rd Street tunnel link. That 496-station system evolved, in stages, over the years spanning 1900 to the early 1940’s; anything after that I consider “new” (even 70+ years later). So far, through the four volumes I’ve finished, I have covered transit developments in the New York City region from 1900 to 1908. Since 1978, these past 36 years have been rather crowded, and I have only 8 years of events to show for them.
Along the way a host of generous people have given me encouragement, help, and answers. Through the good graces of a few booksellers of recent memory, the interested public have become ready patrons. It’s good that recognition has been minimal, though, because, through my solo efforts alone, I can produce only a limited number of copies per volume.
Since I have published, I’ve been interviewed now and then by a variety of media. They’ve mostly been New York-based news reporters, but there have been a few others; interviewers from England, Japan, Mexico, and Thailand. Even the MTA Arts for Transit chief contacted me, at one time, for verification of the American Encaustic Tiling Co. And a few college students have tapped me for some input as well.
Filmmaker Jeremy Workman documented my project over a number of years, beginning in the year 2000; his 30-minute film, “One Track Mind,” debuted at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. We’ve had subsequent showings and Q & A’s at a variety of locations since. The Museum of Modern Art bought a copy of the film for their archives a few years back. And I think PBS shows the movie at odd hours of the day – like at 2 or 3 in the AM, for the insomniac transit crowd.
I’ve come upon this study as an outsider. I grew up in New Jersey, with no particular fascination with transit – though I did play around the railroad tracks behind the A & P with my best friend Danny, to the alarm of our parents (and the DL&W engineer whose train I outran across his track one afternoon). In my school days, I much more favored tromping around in the woods and meadows of the South Mountain Reservation, than sojourning through urban spaces across the river. Before 1978, the most NYC history I knew was from Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History – and that’s not exactly historic at all. When I hit the Library in 1978, I had absolutely no idea which came first – the elevated trains or the subway system.
One of the advantages of being on this project for so long is that I’ve known stations and interiors that are now either changed, or demolished. I’ve written about them (the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, ca. 1987, for instance), or I have notes and photos on them (the Centre Street Loop, ca. 2003, and the Stillwell Avenue Terminal, ca. 2001, and both BMT and IRT Cortlandt Street stations), so I can write them up in future chapters. Likewise, I’ve been fortunate to know one or two key persons in this drama who have since left the scene. But their stories are not lost with them. Even some sources of information I’ve relied on are no longer available. But what I garnered is preserved in my notebooks and lodged in my file cabinets.
One of the disadvantages of not living in New York, though, is that I’ve still missed a lot, because the system is continually evolving, in one way or another, in one borough or another, along one line this month and another route the next. Though I used to get in to see the sights and hammer away at the primary source books nearly every weekend, when I began this study, that’s barely the case now. But we’re trying to change that.
Proceeds from Silver Connections do not pay the bills. I labor on my study in evenings or on weekends, funding my project as I go. Though good, sympathetic people have helped me produce the four volumes of my study, I am essentially a one-man band. The passing times have reshuffled my crew, such as it may have been, and I’ve not produced anything since 1999, except for the few copies of Volumes I and II, scraped together from old & new printed pages, two years ago, and the recent Volume I – Revised text, last year.
There is a Volume V, begun about a decade ago, which I had to put aside as I revised Volume I. Volume V proceeds along the lines of its predecessors, and delivers (will deliver as presently planned) not only the full descriptions and images of the stations of the Centre Street Loop, the Steinway line from 42nd Street to Hunters Point Avenue, and the BRT’s Fourth Avenue subway, but also their construction history, the deliberations of the Public Service Commissioners, the fortunes of its Chief Engineers (up to 1914), and a roster of the contractors and the engineers involved. In short, the standard, researched approach which makes Volumes I through IV so voluminous.
That takes years of devotion and energy, but time moves right along for all of us, and I’m no longer 29, and my steadiness of hand and sharpness of eyesight are not what they used to be. With this condition in mind, it is very much time for a new way to complete this research. And so my efforts from here on will depart from the format of the fat volumes that chronicled the years 1900 through 1908 (and up to 1914, if all goes well).
And so I’ve embarked on a new approach to this record of the NYC transit system. I have begun my Portfolio series. Each Portfolio will detail one line of the subway system. I figure I can cover one route, within the bounds of one borough in a year’s span, as things stand now. It looks like there are 31 lines, by my count, so I’ll have to do better than that. I will start with the Dual Contract routes, of course, because they were the next era of construction after the intermediate tunneling work succeeding Contracts 1 and 2. But I won’t be following a strict chronology. If I did that, I would consider all four railroads to Coney Island (Brighton Beach, Culver, West End, and Sea Beach) in my first Portfolio. But I haven’t; I’ve started further north. Along the way, Staten Island will be remembered, of course. So will the Newark City Subway. Considering a timely finish to this record, the IND lines will be more of a breeze to get through – as they are just white-tiled walls with a colored stripe. Perhaps I could sail through a whole borough or two of them in one year. There is a lost code to their color sequence, by the way, but I think that has been cracked since 1957. We’ll have to look at that in due time. As it is, I already examined both the 8th and the 6th Avenue stations in Manhattan at the very beginning of my project, before I realized that they weren’t the earliest lines on the subway map.
What this Portfolio series means, though, is that I am not researching the personalities or the manufacturers or the detailed construction of these transit lines. There will be just a minimal gloss of historic background, which is not much history. And so I won’t tell you what Commissioner Eustis said to Mayor Gaynor, nor the joke which contractor Sam Rosoff played on the bank president. Nor, regrettably, much about the three – or four? – architect/engineers who designed the Dual Contracts and the IND station formats (but I have their stories). I won’t be saying much about the artisans and tile companies, either. Nor what happened with the four main subway pioneers, profiled in Volume I, after October 1904. All these sidelights are sidelined, thrown into limbo for now, under the present exigencies, because all those details are research, and they comprise the secondary focus of this study.
My primary goal is to record station layouts and their décor, as I see them on my field trips, before more is lost. This is what I have to do, because this is what I set out to do. Days do not stop running by, but maybe I can still hit my 2030 target for completing this study after all.
My first Portfolio is nearly completed, and should be in print by early November. Please check back again soon for further information.