Historic Subway Entrances Undergoing Restoration

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by Michael Perlman

The restored south side of 78th Ave subway with replicated Art Deco detail on the right, Photo by Evan Boccardi

New York City street furniture was traditionally designed with intricate details, ranging from the Beaux Arts to Art Nouveau to Art Deco style to boost character, as art is a gift for the masses. Today, a growing movement is underway by residents and organizations to preserve remaining ornate model fire alarm pedestals, cast iron subway entrances, Bishop Crook lamp posts, street clocks, relay boxes, and rare pea gravel mailbox posts. On occasion, modern replacements are even being swapped for historic models, such as in certain historic districts. Collectively, historic street furniture becomes part of our urban landscape by boosting a community’s character and having a story to tell about their history and craftsmanship.

Last year, subway riders encountered signs on a number of the 1936 Art Deco style IND subway entrances along Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills and Rego Park, advising the use of alternate stairways, in order for the MTA to proceed with repairs of steps, entrances, and tilework. After a few months, certain entrances reopened, but residents scratched their heads upon spotting a barn-like wooden subway entrance with less lighting in exchange for the historic cast iron “K-Rail” IND models. They wondered if the minimalist and much frowned upon wooden entrances were temporary or permanent, sparking much dialogue on social media.

It would take a couple more months to learn that the original models are continuing to be reinstalled due to their precise restoration off-site. Also noteworthy is a subway entrance expansion with replicated Art Deco detail on a new third side that abuts a building, replacing the unfinished pipe-like structure that was affixed to a handrail.

“The MTA is committed to providing functional, clean, and safe subway stations for customers, and always welcomes feedback from the community, as we work to deliver much-needed improvements and repairs to transit infrastructure,” said MTA Spokesperson Meghan Keegan. These are capital projects completed with New York State funding, and the anticipation completion is this spring. “Eight subway entrances along Queens Boulevard will undergo repair work. These are MTA standard cast iron subway railings. They’re chosen for aesthetics, functionality and long durability, to ensure a state of good repair,” she continued. 

Local residents are expressing much delight, especially at a time when landmark-worthy sites are endangered. “It is very nice to see the MTA rebuilding and sprucing up the subway entrances in the Forest Hills area, and bringing them back to their original Art Deco design. I hope that the MTA keeps them graffiti-free,” said Forest Hills resident and community volunteer Stuart Morrison.

Muller Bros Fireproof Storage & 67th Ave temporary bridge while subway was erected, July 1930

“The restoration makes me feel that we take pride in our city and its artistic heritage,” said Richmond Hill Historical Society President Helen Day, who also called their rebirth a pleasure. “These Art Deco style cast iron entrances from 1936 are works of art that deserve to be properly cared for, so they will last for another century and longer. The details on the railings and posts are sharp, clear, and clean, now that they have been stripped and repainted to look new once again.” 

Forest Hills resident Evan Francesco Boccardi had lots to share, drawing from his experience as an architectural preservation and Art Deco enthusiast. “When I first saw that the subway entrances were being replaced, I was extremely curious if the original entrances would be sandblasted and restored to their original splendor, or replaced with the modern updates, as seen during Cuomo’s tenure on 57th Street in Manhattan.”

Chief NYC subway architect Squire Joseph Vickers in his Class of 1900 Cornell yearbook

A couple of months ago, Boccardi discovered the reopened first entrance on the south side of Queens Boulevard at 78th Avenue. “To my very pleasant surprise, the MTA was extremely respectful to the original design of the IND entrance tiles, keeping them the same V3 level of tile variation, but brightening them to be whiter than the original ‘smoker’s teeth’ yellow of the original IND stations. I looked at the tile, and immediately knew craftsmanship when I saw it. They even put the interior and exterior radius bullnose, or mudcap as it is commonly called, on the corners for that streamlined Art Moderne appearance. Only a handful of companies in the world even still make this tile, and for it to have matched so closely, was impressive to say the least.”

After realizing that the station entrances were made of wood, Boccardi quickly deduced their temporary state due to the material’s general flammability and impracticality at a public entrance, in relation to longevity and hygiene. “Wood would not be nearly as hygienic as cast iron regarding the ability to clean it, without causing swelling or damage,” he said.

He found pleasure in mid-February when the south side of 78th Avenue’s subway entrances was restored to the 1936 cast iron model, in addition to two on the north side in front of the Pickman Building, where one replaced a Modernist subway entrance model. All have a new third side with replicated Art Deco details, closest to the buildings. He also took note of the more modern two-tone green globe aesthetic that complements the Art Deco design and indicates a 24-hour entrance.  

Such distinctive achievements resulted in Boccardi’s vision. “The entrances looked new and virtually restored to their original excellence with surgical precision, that they could have had price tags hanging off them. I also picture them having a ribbon, ready for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to cut and commemorate the opening of the IND to Union Turnpike.”

He expressed much gratitude. “I wish to personally commend Kanwar Enterprises of Richmond Hill and Mr. Gurcharan Singh’s team, as well as anyone either contracted by or working at the MTA. These architectural flourishments bring pride to our community and city, and should continue to be restored and preserved for generations to come. I am pleased to state without exaggeration, that these entrances will be used by my children with pride.”

In the near future, the subway entrance in front of the landmarked Ridgewood Savings Bank, in addition to the entrance near Chase on Continental Avenue, is anticipated to be fully restored. A recent restoration took place on the north side at the 75th Avenue station. The 67th Drive entrance of the 67th Avenue station on the north side of Queens Boulevard is presently being worked on. Work is also underway on the north and south side of Queens Boulevard at the 63rd Drive station.

The IND line among other subway lines offers an impressive history. Squire Joseph Vickers (1872 – 1947) worked for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1906, and continued designing NYC subways until 1942. Not only was he a chief architect, with over 300 subway stations, but a highly respected painter and carver of wooden objects, whose works were displayed by the Society of Independent Artists and Anderson Galleries. He was a graduate of the School of Architecture of Cornell University in 1900. It is likely that he designed or oversaw the designs for the IND subway entrances, according to preservationists.

67th Ave station, 1936 Art Deco model without a replicated railing alongside shops, Photo by Michael Perlman

His 1947 obituary in The New York Times read, “Mr. Vickers was actively associated, either by original design or alteration, in the construction of almost all subway stations built in the city and all elevated stations erected during the period in which he held his post. He also designed all the buildings and compartments connected with the stations and drew up plans for most of the powerhouses and underground rectifier stations in the transit systems.”

Over a year ago, Jeremy P. Woodoff retired from the Historic Preservation Office of the New York City Department of Design and Construction, and from 1980 until 2000, he worked at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. “While Vickers is best known for his Arts and Crafts station tilework from the teens and 1920s in the period shortly after the initial IRT construction, he was also responsible for the very different aesthetic of the INDependent subway, erected in the 1930s and 1940s. Station tilework was much simplified, although he did use colored tiles in an interesting way. Vickers gave more scope to then-popular Art Deco motifs in some of the non-station structures, like substations, and also to some ironwork within stations.”

Woodoff pointed out that the simplified classical style subway entrances from the Arts & Crafts era became somewhat more elaborate for the IND entrances, incorporating Art Deco motifs such as zig-zags. “Unlike the mosaic tiles of the earlier period, which were expensive to produce, once the molds were made for the entrance ironwork, there would have been little cost difference between the simpler and more elaborate versions,” he continued. 

Vickers was influenced by Machine Age design and the angular styles of the Art Deco period. One noteworthy building is the City of New York Central Substation at 126 West 53rd Street, where its namesake is etched into the façade, accompanied by elaborate Art Deco motifs bearing resemblance to IND subway entrances.

Subway Excavation at Queens Blvd near 71st Road, Feb 6, 1931

The Independent Subway System is noted as IND or ISS, and was formerly the Independent City-Owned Subway System (ICOS), a NYC rapid transit rail system that is now part of the subway. It originated as the Eighth Avenue Line in Manhattan and opened on September 10, 1932.  

The Queens Boulevard Line was extended from Roosevelt Avenue to Kew Gardens–Union Turnpike on December 31, 1936. This sparked a rapid increase of Colonial and Art Moderne apartment buildings in Forest Hills and Rego Park. After the Continental Avenue subway  station opened, among the most significant Forest Hills residents, Helen Keller, drew upon her excitement and took the train into Manhattan with her secretary Polly Thomson. From April 30, 1939 to October 28, 1940, the line offered service to the 1939 World’s Fair through the World’s Fair Railroad.  

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