Historic Station Sequel

Last week, amid the news of an added connection between the Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street subway stations, we offered you the history of the Bleecker Street station, which is listed on the State & National Register of Historic Places.  There is another nearby station that fits this historically significant bill as well- Astor Place.

The tile name tablets

One of the great streets of the Village, Astor Place has been around for centuries.  As noted in a prior Off the Grid post, “It follows the path of an old Native American trail that appears on maps of the island at least as early as 1639.” The Astor Place Subway Station (Lexington Avenue Line) was completed in 1904 as part of IRT Contract 1.  It was constructed using the then-newly perfected method of cut-and-cover, in which a trench is excavated and roofed over with a support system strong enough to carry the load of what is to be built above the tunnel.  The Interborough Rapid Transit system is considered one of the greatest public works projects ever undertaken.

As explained in our earlier subway station post:

The system was the conception of William Barclay Parsons (1859-1902), a Columbia University-trained engineer who was named Chief Engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission in 1894.  He worked in conjunction with the architectural firm Heins & LaFarge.  George L. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge had already gained fame from their design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and buildings at the Bronx Zoo.  Their works were inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, the belief that by creating a beautiful municipality of monumental grandeur, residents would inherently be inclined to a higher level of moral and civic virtue.  The subway was to be no exception to this philosophy.

In October 1990, along with the Bleecker Street station, the Astor Place subway station was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places for its engineering and architectural significance.  The latter consists of Faince (fine tin-glazed pottery) plaques, marble wainscoting, ceramic cornices, and mosaic tablets.  A 1986 replica of an original IRT Budapest-style kiosk serves as the Uptown entrance.  Budapest has the second oldest underground subway system in the world, built in 1896, (London’s is the oldest) and the original station entrances in New York City were modeled after these.

Plans for standard NYC kiosks. Astor Place is one of the only remaining examples. Image courtesy of the New York Transit Museum.

According to an article from the West 75th Street Block Association, “Although New York modeled its subway on the London Underground, the control houses followed Budapest (Hungary) style, which was modeled on exotic summer houses called ‘kushks’ found in the gardens of ancient Persia and Turkey. The name was Americanized; here they were called kiosks.”

Subway “Kiosks” in Budapest

The Uptown entrance at the Astor Place station, modeled after kiosks in Budapest

The other most recognizable design feature of the Astor Place subway station is the Beaver plaque.  According to the S&NR Report:

Each plaque features a yellow beaver in honor of John Jacob Astor.  The Plaques are framed in green faience borders border decorated with scrolled and foliate motifs.  At the top corners of each plaque are two tiles featuring a geometric design.  Flanking the beaver plaques are tiles featuring stylized cornucopia.

These plaques were done by the Grueby Facience Company, an American ceramics company founded in 1894 that produced tiles and vases during the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The Astor family acquired much of its wealth through fur trading, hence the symbolism of the beaver.

The Beaver plaque. Image courtesy of Ephemeral New York.

Another interesting, yet somewhat hidden, detail resides on the Downtown platform above a control room doorway.  The marble lintel reads “Clinton Hall,” the former name of the building at 13 Astor Place above the station.  Ephemeral New York reports, ” Formerly the Astor Place Opera House (and the site of the Astor Place riots in 1849 that killed 20 people), the building housed the Mercantile Library of New York. When the city constructed the Astor Place station in 1904, they created an exit from the platform to the library.”

L: the Clinton Hall lintel; R: 13 Astor Place, in front of which stands the entrance to the Downtown platform

The Astor Place Subway Station was also quite significant to the social and cultural development of the neighborhood.  According to the State & National Register Report:

The Astor Place Station contributed to the ongoing development of the East Village after the original IRT subway line was opened in 1904.  The surrounding area was a very fashionable address in the 1840s, but over time, the area had developed into more of a mixed use residential and commercial community.  Wanamaker’s department store (whose foundation was tied into the construction of Astor Place Station in 1904) was one of many large anchor stores that supplied the surrounding middle and upper middle class community. [You can read the complete history of the Wanamaker Department Store HERE.]  The subway’s creation of quick and easy access to the rest of the city from this part of Manhattan ensured that this already crowded district continued to become more densely populated in the period between 1904 and and World War I. 

A 1937 photo taken of the Uptown Astor Place Station by Bernice Abbot. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

In 1986, graphic artist and print maker Milton Glaser (he created the I ♥ New York logo) installed modern art pieces on the Astor Place subway platform.  According to the Arts for Transit website:

Glaser described his approach as, “basically a variation on the existing forms. By extracting fragments of the motifs on the tile panels, enlarging their scale, and placing these pieces in a random pattern, they take on the appearance of a puzzle.” The result is a series of porcelain enamel panels in geometric patterns and color that echo the historic elements but present them in an entirely new way.

The Porcelain enamel art pieces done by Milton Glaser on the platform of the Astor Place Subway Station. Images courtesy of Subway Nut.

Today, Astor Place still serves as a centerpiece of the NoHo and East Village communities, with the subway station as its anchor.

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Dana Dana was GVSHP's Programs and Administrative Associate from 2010 to 2013.