Author and transit expert Oscar Israelowitz knows a thing or two about the New York City transit system, and in his latest book, Secrets of the New York City Subways, he delves deep into the secrets of the MTA's 469 subway stations, discussing their historical significance, artworks, and people behind many of the various stations' designs, with some prominent names like the Guastavino brothers, Roy Lichtenstein, Heins & LaFarge, and more.
Digging into the history of each and every subway station is no easy feat and requires years of research and dedication, prompting one to wonder why would anybody take on such a monster of a project. Well, we caught up with Israelowitz and spoke to him about his inspiration for the book while convincing him to share a secret or two from Secrets of the New York City Subways.
What prompted you to want to explore the significance of the MTA’s 469 subway stations?
Back in 1972, I took various art classes at Cooper Union School of Architecture. One class dealt with projects dealing with Color-Aid paper. My eyes became very sensitized. When I went home after school in the subways, I started seeing the wall decorations which were truly dazzling. I think it was then that I became interested in the artworks of the NYC subway system. In a class with art historian and then-Whitney Museum of American Art director, David Hupert, it was suggested that instead of writing a term paper, I work on an exhibition for the Whitney Museum about art in the subway. We ultimately assembled a beautiful exhibit called "Watch the Closing Doors—Mosaics of the NYC Subways." The exhibit traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and part of it ended up at the newly-opened New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn.
Then there were several books published about the New York City Subways. In 1989, I published Guide to the NYC Subways. That was followed by New York City Subways in Vintage Photographs, which was co-authored with my partner, Brian Merlis. It was a history of the original elevated lines. Secrets of the New York City Subways is a synthesis of both original books and contains an enormous amount of new information. It features a station-by-station history and guide of ALL of the subway stations.
How significant of a role does artwork from prominent artists play in shaping various stations over time?
People were originally afraid to go into the original subway of 1904. It was dark, dirty, and almost like going into hell. When Belmont allocated $500,000 to "beautify" the first subway lines, he hired the firms of Heins & LaFarge to decorate the station walls. They used marble, terra cotta, glass mosaics and bas reliefs to enhance each station. You can actually follow the first subway line vis-à-vis the Beaux-Arts designs, starting with the first line at the original City Hall station. It was decorated with Guastavino arched ceilings, chandeliers, and stained-glass curved skylights. That station can be viewed if you stay on the southbound 6 train at Brooklyn-Bridge-City Hall (it's the last stop but you can stay on and ride it to the uptown track unless an MTA official says otherwise).
Some of the designs featured along the first subway line include a fishing sloop at South Ferry, the "wall" at Wall Street, Robert Fulton’s "Clermont" at Fulton Street, a beaver at Astor Place, and an American Bald Eagle at 33rd Street. The second phase of construction of the subways occurred in the 1910s and brought radically different station wall finishes and more abstract artwork from artists like Jay Van Everen, Squire Vickers and Herbert Dole. In more recent years, the MTA has commissioned world-renowned artists that include Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Johnson, Faith Ringgold, and more to enhance the subway station walls.
Do you have a station that is your favorite? If so, which one and why?
One exciting station is actually a major transfer point in Brooklyn. The Broadway Junction station was once a transfer point for the Broadway and Lexington Avenue Els in Brooklyn, the Fulton Street El, and the Canarsie Line, all part of the original Brooklyn Rapid Transit—a private rail company.
Are there any secrets that are currently hidden in plain sight?
There are two great stations along the Brighton line, now known today as the Q train. The Avenue H station on the Manhattan-bound side has a very unique free-standing station house. It was originally designed as the Fiske Terrace Real Estate office around 1907. There is a beautiful art installation designed by Edward Kopel called "Brooklyn Bucolic" where there's stationary rocking chairs of all sizes sitting outside of the station house.
Another strange "secret" on this Brighton line is the Neck Road stone. On the Manhattan-bound station are a set of concrete stairs that have been blocked-off to the general public. This subway line was once part of the Long Island Rail Road. There were two additional tracks running parallel to the four tracks on the Brighton line (on the east side of the station). There was a spur going out to the Sheepshead Bay Race Track. I found this great book which featured aerial photos of the entire New York City. It dates from 1924. So, in 1924, if you were flying over this station, you can see the Brighton line and the rail spur along with the actual Sheepshead Bay Race Track! Secrets of the NYC Subway has this and twelve additional aerial photographs dating back to 1924.
In addition to highlighting the artworks of the subway, Israelowitz also highlights the the various landmarks, historical districts, and other significant neighborhood markings for the subway stations that he elaborates on. Secrets of the NYC Subways is riddled with who-knew facts making for an interesting and educational read. It can be purchased at the New York Transit Museum store.