From time to time in the last two years, construction work has opened up the tracks and platforms of the 1904 subway stop at 72nd Street and Broadway to glorious floods of sunlight, washing down on the greasy and dingy station platforms like warm water and soap. Now work crews are putting up the glass-block walls that will let light into a new above-ground station house — but the below-ground areas have been plunged back into artificial light.
Although the station’s original vault lights — glass inserts in concrete slabs that allowed natural light onto the platforms — will not reappear, John Tarantino, chief architect at New York City Transit, said the agency was working citywide to bring daylight back to the subway experience.
According to Cas Stachelberg, an associate at the preservation consulting firm of Higgins & Quasebarth, vault lights were invented in the 1840’s to light ships below deck but were soon adapted for urban use. By the late 19th century they were common on New York sidewalks, especially in commercial areas. SoHo still has a large concentration of them, often with green or purple glass inserts fixed into ornate iron matrixes. In the 1890’s, manufacturers began using grids of concrete instead of metal.
The developers of New York’s first subway, built from 1900 to 1904 as a private endeavor, were worried about the distaste of Victorian New Yorkers for the dirt and darkness of underground spaces, so the use of glazed white tile for the walls was a natural design decision.
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.”
A 1904 commemorative book, ”The New York Subway,” noted that vault lights were used in more than half of the 34 stations: ”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.
The subway vault lights were developed by the American Luxfer Prism Company of Chicago, which also sold transoms and projecting canopies with ridged glass to refract light inside. The company said that its concrete matrix was not slippery when wet and did not produce condensation, suggesting that the traditional metal-framed vault lights suffered from those problems.
Although many elements of the stations were widely praised, the street-level station houses — also known as control houses — used at stations with narrow platforms were not received well.
In 1904 a letter to the editor of The Times signed ”West Sider” lambasted the 72nd Street control house: ”Squat, formless, disgustingly symmetrical, it suggests nothing so much as a car shed. Its color is a monstrous imitation of street dust. The ghastly attempt at ornamentation only serves to make ridiculous what in the severe simplicity of utility might have been forgiven.”
The writer proposed instead that ”one corner might have been thrown up into a minaret, iron and glass in graceful combinations might have been substituted for the dead walls of yellow brick.”
In 1905 The Times itself said that the stairs of the 72nd Street station ”are wholly inadequate and very badly designed.”
The new subway line was a hit, and crowds were greater than expected; soon the platforms were extended, adding to the pedestrian loads. Three decades later, the marvel had worn off. 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.”
BY that time most of the vault lights had been removed. ”Very early on there were complaints about the heat buildup and especially the smells,” Mr. Stachelberg said, and he quoted a 1906 report listing the prevalent smells of the subway as ”fish oil in the brake lubricant, disinfectant, creosote and odors of human origin.” In many cases, the vault lights were replaced with the steel vents now visible near many stations. But since the vents allowed rain into the stations, drainage pans were installed underneath them, blocking the light.
At 72nd and Broadway a project is now under way to alleviate station crowding that involves rehabilitating the old control house (a designated landmark) and building a second, similar structure on the north side of 72nd Street. The new station house for the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 lines promises to be an interesting work, designed by a joint venture of the architects Richard Dattner & Partners and Gruzen Samton. Both the new and old buildings will incorporate glazed roofing elements to let sunlight fall into the turnstile area at street level.
But that’s where it will stop, even though vault lighting was used extensively in the 1904 control house, both inside and out. Mr. Tarantino, New York City Transit’s chief architect, said that cost-cutting and continuing concerns over maintenance of vault lights had eliminated them from the 72nd Street project. (Last month, three of the 144 glass panels for the control house’s roof were stolen from outside the new subway entrance, which was inspired by the Crystal Palace at the London Exhibition of 1851.)
Cost-cutting and maintenance issues prevented the installation of vault lights in the Times Square subway station a few years ago. In the passageway between the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and the A, C and E trains, there is a ceiling, perhaps 20 by 100 feet, of concrete matrix with round indentations. But there are no vault lights; the glass inserts were canceled after the concrete had been laid.
”I’m a strong supporter of natural light in the stations,” Mr. Tarantino said, ”but we’re still in an experimental stage. We need to prove to ourselves that this application will not prove onerous in the long term, and once we do, there will be a more extensive use of vault lights in the future.”
That future is already arriving at stations like the East 161st Street stop on the C and D lines in the Bronx, where recently installed vault lights bring sunlight down to the mezzanine. Mr. Tarantino said that New York City Transit was working on designs for vault light installations for the mezzanines at the West 110th and West 116th Street stations on the No. 1 Broadway line in Manhattan.
The most ambitious project is for the passageways under the block bounded by 42nd Street, Broadway, 41st Street and Seventh Avenue. There, Mr. Tarantino said, a design is in place to ring the entire trapezoidal block with vault lights to help orient riders in the station to the streets above.
That project is scheduled to be put out for bids in the fall, he said, and should be finished within four years.
Source : New York times by Christopher Gray may 2002
IN NEXT BLOG ARTICLES WE WILL SHOW YOU THAT DAYLIGHT IS COMMING BACK TO NY METRO STATION