The Guastavinos set tiles in a crisscross pattern with fast-setting mortar to create lightweight vaults. These arches at the Bronx Zoo's Elephant House are structural as well as decorative.
City Hall is one of the most written about but least seen stations in the City of New York. It was closed in 1945. The platform is short and very tightly curved, so when new, longer trains were introduced, it was considered too dangerous to open the center doors at the station's platform. The station is scheduled to reopen in 2000 as an annex to the Transit Museum
The Guastavino tile ceiling in the Registry Room at Ellis Island is a magnificent example of their fine work. The land from the construction of the subway system was used as landfill for part of Ellis Island.
Columbus Circle was the first station ready for tile, so the Grueby Company tested its various types here. These frames and cornice are very elaborate--rosettes joined by nautical line and garlands of fruit tied with flowing ribbons.
These medallions, probably the work of the Grueby Faience Company, grace the walls of the 103rd Street Station, which once had a control house by Heins & Lafarge.
The famous matte green Grueby glaze, which can be seen on the company's vases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the dominate glaze used here at the 50th Street Station. It can also be found, at the Astor Place, 59th, 110th, and 116th Street stops.
The eagle was a natural choice for Heins & Lafarge for the 33rd Street Station since the 71st Regiment Armory was being rebuilt above the station at the time. A fire had destroyed its predecessor in 1902.
A plaque at South Ferry Station by the Hartford Faience Company. Faience plaques were made in plaster molds, which allowed them to be hollow blocks with open backs. Average blocks are roughly 4 inches deep and need to be set into the structure of the wall they decorate. Large pieces, which can be extremely heavy, often require metal straps for additional anchoring.
he IRT was the first subway in the world to have four-track service, meaning separate tracks for local and express trains in each direction. The original line covered 21 miles. Only five of the roughly 50 stations, each 1.5 miles apart, were express stops; the rest were "way," or local, stations. The express trains reached speeds as great as 40 miles an hour, making them the world's fastest form of urban mass transit.
But, beyond its speed and efficiency the original developers of the system wanted the subway to be a thing of beauty, something to be enjoyed and admired. Thus, the first Rapid Transit Commission Contract of 1900 asked that "the railway and its equipment . . . constitute a great public work. All parts of the structure where exposed to public sight shall therefore be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency." By calling for a resolution between art and utility, the contract would ensure that New York City's subways would outdo their European predecessors.
Since construction began long before they were appointed, architectural consultants Heins & Lafarge needed to work fast. They relied upon the model they knew best and brought several techniques they were already using at the Bronx Zoo to the subway project. These included polychromed tile arches and vaulted ceilings, and ornamental plaques. The challenge was to give each station a distinct character with appropriate decorations that would please as well as inform. And, of course, the materials they planned to use also had to be durable.
Passenger service began on October 27, 1904, from City Hall to Broadway and 145th Street, and the remaining pieces of the line were opened between November 1904 and August 1908. Each station could be clearly identified by its unique decorations in glazed ceramic, tile, and mosaics. Throughout the system, Heins & Lafarge used marble, brick, and ceramic or glass tile, all durable enough to withstand dampness and frequent scrubbing. They also used the ancient technique of mosaic and the relatively new one of glazed terra cotta. This latter technique was used to fashion a variety of ornaments: egg and dart moldings and key borders, scrolls, rosettes, leaves, garlands, cornucopias, and wreaths. These patterns surrounded passengers with a feeling of the familiar, giving a sense of comfort and even luxury to what could have been an anxiety producing experience--traveling underground.
When looking for firms to assist with their elaborate program of design and decoration, Heins and Lafarge relied on their previous experience with the firm they had used for the Bronx Zoo--the Guastavino Construction Company. For the zoo they had used Guastavino's system of structural arches and vaulted ceilings, polychrome tiles and sculpted terra cotta ornaments.
The tiles of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842-1908) and Rafael Guastavino Jr. (1872-1950), were fireproof, laminated tile used for wide arches that created a unique vaulted spatial effect. The major example of their use in the subway is the original City Hall station. It's matte ceiling tiles contrast with the green and brown glazed tiles at the edges of the vaults. Blue and white glazed name plaques provide a handsome form of identification for the station. One reporter described it as a "cool little vaulted city of cream and blue earthenware like a German beer stein."
The Guastavinos specialized in constructing self-supporting tile arches that were light, strong, fireproof and economical. Their beautiful thin-shell ceiling tiles grace numerous buildings including McKim, Mead and White's Municipal Building, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University, the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, the Registry Room at Ellis Island, as well as the Elephant House of the Bronx Zoo.
For the subway, Heins & Lafarge also wanted more traditional decorative motifs such as garlands, wreaths, cornucopias, scrolls and rosettes to be executed in ceramic, mosaic, tile and terra cotta. Whereas the Gusatvinos were used to blending decoration with structural integrity, other ceramics firms were brought in to produce the purely decorative signs and plaques. The two most prominent firms were the Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. Originally just producers of artistic tiles and pottery, both firms began turning out architectural faience work by the turn of the century.
Faience is an opaque, glazed ceramic, which is fired twice, as opposed to single-fired terra cotta, and therefore achieves a greater range of colors.
The Grueby Faience Company was founded in 1894 by William H. Grueby. This company specialized in architectural tiles, brick and terra cotta. Grueby's work won international acclaim, earning medals at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris, the 1901 Pan -American Exposition in Buffalo, and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. They were renowned for the matte green glaze which can be found in the 50th Street station. The company, which became even better known for its art pottery, was bought out by the C. Pardee Works in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1917. It closed completely in 1938. The Grueby Faience Company produced many of the larger and more distinctive plaques: the ships at Columbus Circle; the eagle at 33rd Street; the beaver at Astor Place; as well as numerous decorative name and number plaques at Brooklyn Bridge, Bleeker Street, 14th, 18th, 42nd, 50th, 103rd, 110th and 116th Streets.
Maria Longworth Nichols, daughter of a wealthy Cincinnati patron, started Rookwood Pottery in 1880. Examples of the pottery it produced were awarded gold medals at the University Exposition in Paris in 1889. In 1902 the company formed an architecture department, and received a large order for ornaments to be used in the 1904 subway stations. Rookwood Pottery produced the decorative faience for the 23rd, 79th, 86th and 91st Street stations as well as large plaques at Wall and Fulton Streets (1905).
Eugene Atwood, who had been a partner with William Greuby in Boston, formed the Hartford Faience Company in 1894. They produced a wide range of architectural products, many of which were used in New York City buildings, until about 1913. Thereafter the company made ceramic electrical fixtures. Fine examples of their ornamental plaques can be seen at South Ferry (1905) and at Borough Hall, Brooklyn (1908) stops.
In a report to chief engineer Parsons, Lafarge modestly summarized their accomplishments: "We have used a very limited number of different materials, rather few patterns and not many colors. These have been combined and recombined in varying arrangements, so as to produce a pretty considerable appearance of diversity, and all this has been for the distinct and proper purpose of aiding the traveler in the rapid and easy identification of his whereabouts."
All photos are in the public domain or are ©Roger and Susannah Shepherd.
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