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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Let There Be Light

The New York City subway system is not the place you would associate with natural lighting, but according to a 2002 article by Christopher Gray of the New York Times:

John Tarantino, chief architect at New York City Transit, said the agency was working citywide to bring daylight back to the subway experience.
In February 1904, The New York Times noted that ''a speck of dirt would find a difficult resting place'' in the new subway stations, which were trimmed with oak, bronze, red granite and decorative tile. Instead of the bare bulbs now common to most stations, the original subway had simple but distinctive globes. Ventilation was closely considered, and an article in World's Work magazine described the air as ''dry and sweet'' and noted that ''glass roofs provide the stations with plenty of light.''

Vault lights were also heavily used - in 1904, 20 of the 34 underground stations had vault lights. See my posting, Sidewalk Vault Lights, here. In the same article, Gray quotes from the 1904 commemorative book The New York Subway:

At 20 of the underground stations it has been possible to use vault lights to such an extent that very little artificial light is needed.' Photographs of stations in those days show great banks of sidewalk vault lights casting natural light onto the platforms directly below; presumably the platforms sent a soft glow to the streets at night, when artificial lighting was used.

But not long after, most of the vault lights were removed. In 1938, an article by Laurence Bell in The American Mercury magazine entitled The Most Awful Ride in the World deplored the ''murky depths'' with ''concrete even filthier than the stairs, a filth that is accentuated by the dim lights whose sole reflectors are the stained walls of once-white tile.''

Street level station houses were not so well liked. The well known and heavily used station house at 72nd Street and Broadway is a particularly egregious example, with platforms and stairways that are unusually narrow. Until completion of the new control house, there was only one entrance to the station, access only via the middle of a traffic island, and no free transfer between the uptown and downtown sides of the station.

In 2002, construction began on a new control house. The design was a joint venture between architects Richard Dattner & Partners and Gruzen Samton. Inspired by the Crystal Palace at the London Exhibition of 1851, the new structure has lots of glass. See additional photo here. However, although vault lights had been planned, cost-cutting issues and maintenance concerns of the proposed vault lights resulted in their elimination.

Light is a precious thing, particularly in the New York City subway system, where natural illumination goes a long way to ameliorate the grim and grimy subterranean environment. I am sure I am not alone among New Yorkers when I ask of John Tarantino or any other NYC transit tsar, let there be light :)

Related Post: Sidewalk Vault Lights


Lily Hydrangea said...

that would be so nice!
Love your Rocket Man post too.

Beth in NYC said...

Ah, now you're in my neighborhood! I was leery of the new 72nd St. station as it was going up but I'm happy with it. In addition to all of the glass, the staircases are much wider. They did a good job, despite having to drop the vault lights. I gree with your other post - it would be great if new construction include them again.

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Anonymous said...

Woah, I hadn't been to that station in years. I had no idea it had been renovated! I'll have to make a special trip up there sometime to have a look in person!