For in the late 1890s and early 1900s, many existing European transit systems were extended and several new ones began. The role of the artist and architect became increasingly important in these new systems, and their potential influence on the New York subway was great. European designers of the 1890s were experimenting with “a short but very significant fashion in decoration” known as Art Nouveau to create subway stations. Art Nouveau and its complementary movement in Germany and Austria, Jugendstil, were the basis for the architectural treatment of two important subway systems of this period; the Paris Metropolitan built between 1898 and 1901, and the Vienna Stadtbahn, 1895-1901. Primarily a decorative style, Art Nouveau was particularly well suited to the sort of applied embellishment required for a subway project.
It must be noted that the stations for the Paris Metro were designed by the renowned Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard. In Vienna, Otto Wagner, another well-known architect, was chosen as designer for the Stadtbahn.
As critics claimed, Art Nouveau is mediator between Historicism and the Modern Movement. While not a truly modern style, Art Nouveau can at least be termed progressive, because “the frenzy of its insistence on unprecedented form places it beyond that (19th) century of historicism. Despite of the progressive precedent already set by European underground transit, the New York subway carried out along traditional lines. The reason lies with both the personalities involved and with an aesthetic movement which was peculiarly American–the City Beautiful. The City Beautiful Movement was a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities.
Generally, American architecture during the last decades of the 19th century is particularly hard to characterize, for a number of trends were occurring simultaneously. Louis Sullivan and others were at work in Chicago producing buildings relatively free from historical precedent. At the same time, and particularly in the East, the Villard Houses (New York, 1883) and the Boston Public Library (1888-1895) were built. The aesthetic and intellectual motives of the City Beautiful, along with the general attitude of political and social reform during the period, were the most powerful influences upon the architectural treatment of the New York subway.
Color was the most important artistic device used in the subway stations. It was believed that color was thought to appeal to the average person more than subtle differences in scale or detail. As Herbert Croly observed: ’’ The ordinary man has no experience or standards which enable him to appreciate a building whose merit consists in effective proportions in well distributed masses and well-scaled details. Architecture whose chief merits consist in such qualities must always be inaccessible and uninteresting to the majority of people. General use of livelier colors will result in attracting popular attention to good design.’’ This color theory has been put to practice in the stations of the New York subway. The result is successful
But before the beginning of 20th century, before New-York welcomed its’ first official subway stations, in 1980s American businessman and engineer Alfred Ely Beach had an idea to create first underground transit system. He wanted to transport the masses by subway. The radical idea was laughed at and initially Beach could only get a permit to build an underground mail tube.
But he took what he could get and simply built the tube large enough to hold his subway cars. And so, New York City’s first subway was born in the form of a pneumatic tube, a giant rotary blower that pushed a single car down the track.
It took only 58 days to complete a single 95 meter tunnel that ran under Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street, for which Beach put up $350,000 of his own money. During its first two weeks of operation, the Beach Pneumatic Transit sold over 11,000 rides and over 400,000 total rides at 25 cents a fare.
Riders entered the station oddly enough at Devlin’s Clothing Store, a well-known shop at 260 Broadway on the southwest corner of Warren Street. Once inside the station, the Victorian subway riders would find themselves in an ornate “waiting room”, adorned with frescoes, armchairs and statues.
There was even a gold fish pond and a grand piano playing to entertain nervous commuters awaiting their first ride on a strange new form of transport. The cars, also outfitted with plush seating and Victorian luxuries, could hold 22 people.
But the whole project was more of a demonstration, running only a single car on its its one-block-long track to a dead-end. When the car reached the end, the blower system was then reversed, pulling the car back by suction. Much like a funfair attraction. It was planned to run about 8km in total, to Central Park, if it was ever completed.
During its first two weeks of operation, the public had showed initial approval, unfortunately, he couldn’t fully convince the people of New York City that his considerably slow and loud subway system was necessary or safe.
Beach was delayed in getting permission to expand it and by the time he finally gained permission in 1873, the stock market had crashed and public and financial support was gone. The subway was shut down within the year. He tried leasing the tunnel out for wine storage and even a shooting gallery but still could not make ends meet. The failed subway was finally boarded up and with Beach’s death a few later, its existence was totally forgotten.
That is until 1912 when the current subway was being built. Surprised workers discovered the old tunnel, where they found the remains of the car, the tunnelling shield and even the piano in the subway’s waiting room
Finally, They decided to incorporated the discovery into the City Hall station that is now itself a disused station, where a simple plaque on the wall commemorates the first American subway.
Author: Tamta Jugashvili