Downtown

Streets of ‘Old New York’ shine through at new subway exhibit

February 18, 2020 Alex Williamson

When construction of New York City’s subway system first began, transit officials of the early 20th century did what any modern builder would do: They dispatched professional surveyors to measure, photograph and document the areas where tunnels were to be dug. 

The resulting photographs gave the city more than it bargained for. Not only did the photographs serve their original purpose by providing precise documentation of the survey area, but the surviving prints, now on display at the Transit Museum, offer a fascinating glimpse at daily life in a city that was changing rapidly alongside its mass transit system. 

The museum’s “Streetscapes & Subways” exhibit features photographs by brothers Pierre P. and Granville W. Pullis, who, over a 30-year period in the early 1900s, documented the beginning, middle and end of the subway system’s construction. 

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The photos not only captured the digging of the tunnels and trenches where trains would later run, but children playing in the streets, shopkeepers vending their wares and old-school architectural elements that have long since been replaced. 

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Workers in the Greenpoint Tube, 1929. Photograph by Pierre P. Pullis. Eugene Casey Tunneling Collection, Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

The Pullis brothers created most of the exhibit’s photos on glass plates using an 8×10 camera — a piece of cutting-edge technology favored by surveyors of the time because, unlike film, the glass plates weren’t susceptible to bending. The plates were often washed for reuse, so that any of the brothers’ photos survived is remarkable, according to museum curators. 

The Transit Museum is incredibly proud to be the stewards of the Pullis collection, which is recognized as one of, if not the, most comprehensive repositories of images related to original subway construction in existence,” said Concetta Bencivenga, director at the Transit Museum. 

“Streetscapes & Subways: Photographs by Pierre P. and Granville W. Pullis” is open to the public through January 17th, 2021 at the New York Transit Museum, located in a decommissioned subway station at 99 Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn.


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