Yesterday’s news headlines were abuzz with the phrase “subway flaw fixed,” in reference to today’s opening of the connection between the Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street stations. As the New York Times explains, “Until this week, only riders on downtown No. 6 trains at Bleecker Street could transfer to the B, D, F or M lines at Broadway-Lafayette. Riders from the other direction would have to switch trains elsewhere — at Jay Street-Borough Hall or Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street in Brooklyn, for example — or suffer the inconvenience of a walk above ground between the Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street stations, capped by an extra MetroCard swipe.”
This decades-old inconvenience ends today. Amid the transfer to-do, however, GVSHP was reminded that this newly-celebrated subway station is actually one of the oldest in the entire city, and as such is listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, which reveals the stations noble, and significantly less flawed, history.
The Bleecker Street Subway Station (Lexington Avenue Line) was completed in 1904 as part of IRT Contract 1. It was constructed using the then-newly perfected method of cut-and-cover — where a trench is excavated and roofed over with a support system strong enough to carry the load of what is to be built above the tunnel. The Interborough Rapid Transit system is considered one of the greatest public works projects ever undertaken.
The system was the conception of William Barclay Parsons (1859-1902), a Columbia University-trained engineer who was named Chief Engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission in 1894. He worked in conjunction with the architectural firm Heins & LaFarge. George L. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge had already gained fame from their design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and buildings at the Bronx Zoo. Their works were inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, the belief that by creating a beautiful municipality of monumental grandeur, residents would inherently be inclined to a higher level of moral and civic virtue. The subway was to be no exception to this philosophy.
Rapid Transit Commissioners felt that the painting and decoration of subway stations should exude brightness and cheerfulness. Each IRT subway station had its own color scheme and its own repeated faience (fine tin-glazed pottery) plaque that served as a “symbolic link between the station and the area above ground which it served.” The 1990 State and National Register report describes the significance of the Bleecker Street Station as follows:
In the Bleecker Street Station the high quality of the surviving materials and the architectural detail are magnificent. Faience plaques, roman brick wainscoting, ceramic cornices, and all eight of the original faience named tablets are still visible throughout the station. The Bleecker Street Station, as part of the original IRT subway system, displays high quality craftsmanship and architectural detail in addition to superior materials.
The Bleecker Street Station contributed to the ongoing development of the East Village after 1904. Although the area was densely populated prior to the construction of the rapid transit system, the area became filled with commercial spaces and factories after the turn of the last century. Immigrant families from Italy and Ireland came to live and work in the neighborhood. Those that did not live in the area had to find an inexpensive means of transportation to get to and from their factory jobs- a solution that was provided by the new subway system. The Bleecker Street Station, as part of the original IRT line, undoubtedly had a great effect on the changing character and growth of this area of the city.
Interestingly, the report also calls out the need for repairs in the station and the lack of transfer on the Uptown platform. Twelve years later, though, these improvements have taken effect, un-flawing an otherwise flawless piece of history.