Historic preservation and the MTA
It’s an interesting time to live in New York City. After decades of suburban flight, a huge influx of new residents is well underway. Movement has brought changes, to be sure, but it has also shined a new light on old infrastructure. For those who have been here long enough to remember the days when the NYC subway was a grimy, crime-ridden hole in the ground thundering with the clatter of graffiti-covered train cars, the final vestiges of those days are being stamped out. The city is restoring the system to its early glory, or as close as modern standards and funding will allow.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hosted a presentation at the Transit Museum Tuesday evening to talk about MTA’s historic preservation efforts in recent years. Part of the museum’s AfterHours program, the lecture — A Lasting Legacy: Historic Preservation and the MTA — was given as part of an exhibit the agency opened March 14 at the museum’s annex at Grand Central Terminal. The exhibit and the presentation are part of the city’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of its landmarks law.
Hollie Wells, an MTA project administrator, and Sara McIvor, a historic preservationist for MTA, rattled off an impressive list of transit landmarks that had been rehabilitated, or were going through the process. Among them were recognizable buildings like the 72nd Street Station entranceway, the Columbus Circle station, the steel viaduct that arches over the Manhattan Valley in Harlem and the Atlantic Avenue Station head house in Brooklyn. The list also included lesser-known structures, such as a substation and ventilation facility disguised in a rowhouse in Brooklyn Heights, and the ornate metal stair covers that shelter stairways at Wall Street and Borough Hall.
The work was completed in conjunction with the NYC Landmarks Commission, Wells said, explaining that most of the locations the agency rebuilt were in rough shape after years of neglect and haphazard installation of new equipment. Water damage, metal conduits, broken tiles and darkness were the hallmarks of most NYC subway stations for years, but many locations have already been improved. Mosaic and terra-cotta tiles, intricate metal work and sculpted masonry have been restored and replaced where possible.
“While we can’t undo what was done, we do what we can to preserve and protect resources,” Wells said to a room packed with people who tended to refer to subway lines by their historic, pre-system unification names IRT, BMT and IND. “Our primary responsibility, mandated by law, is to provide service and safety, so we have to be creative and innovative.”
The Atlantic Avenue entrance building, for example, was abandoned and in rough shape. But MTA shored up the structure, moved it, and placed it above the station’s mezzanine several years ago, where it was converted into a skylight for the area below.
The substation in Brooklyn Heights — which is filled with electrical equipment and fans used to ventilate the tunnels when they get too hot — had become an eyesore in a neighborhood that had again become fashionable. The windows had been replaced with louvers and a battered, chain-locked steel door covered the entrance above a crumbling stoop. Today, it has been refinished, with real glass windows, and resembles other houses on the block.
Other stations had black, water-damaged ceilings, which were rebuilt and replaced with white plaster. Granite walls along the sides of the 125th Street viaduct were about to fall on the track, McIvor said. Repairs fixed the problem, and a thorough cleaning revealed light-colored stone beneath layers of sooty black grime. Some of the ornate metal work around the system, such as the doors on the Greenwich Village substation and the stair covers at Wall Street and Borough Hall, had to be custom made.
“One-hundred years of damage can really do a number,” McIvor said.
Wells pointed out that restoration work unearthed a number of long-forgotten details, too. At Columbus Circle, a number of century-old tiling test patterns were found behind a wall that had to be removed. Some will be displayed behind glass. The new South Ferry station, which was built just before Superstorm Sandy — when it flooded to the brim — revealed more than 65,000 artifacts, including an old sea wall.
Naturally, Bob Diamond and the Atlantic Avenue rail tunnel came up as audience members asked questions at the end of the program. But there was no definitive answer regarding the fate of the world’s oldest subway tunnel and its discoverer. For now, it will remain as it is: closed to the public.
Work will continue around the city, Wells and McIvor said. A total of 71 MTA facilities qualify as city, state or federal landmarks. Rest assured that in the future, most the NYC subway system will no longer be a good backdrop for films like “Ghost Busters II” and “The Warriors,” but it might make an ideal setting for stories about the early 20th century, when the subway was still a new thing.
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