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Framing Union Square by Mary Miss: Where Public Art Meets Preservation

The 14th Street/Union Square Station is one of the busiest in the New York City Subway system. It is also one of the oldest, with the station first opening as one of the original 28 Subway stations on October 27th, 1904. Over the years, the station had many additional lines and transfers added, and underwent several major renovations. Collectively, those changes removed virtually all of the station’s original details.

By the 1990s the Union Square station was yet again in need of renovation. The station’s rehab was spearheaded by architect Lee Harris Pomeroy, who had also completed the restoration of several other New York City Subway Stations. Through the MTA’s Art and Design department, Pomeroy worked with artist Mary Miss to revive the station and its history. Mary Miss is a pioneering artist in the fields of both landscape and public art. As the station’s renovation progressed, many of the early architectural details were uncovered. Miss and Pomeroy wanted to find a way to incorporate these architectural elements into the modern transit hub.

Original marks that served as inspiration for the project. Source: Framing Union Square Film

In early visits to the station, Miss noted that parts of the station that were in need of repair had been spray painted in red. It was from this she was inspired to create “Framing Union Square,” a public art installation located within the station. The installation was done in 1998, and is made up of 125 red frame elements, including beams, frames, windows, apertures, and mirrors, which were installed to draw attention to the historic elements that had been uncovered during the station’s rehabilitation. 

The installations highlight a range of historic details. Some of the most notable being large beams that surround six terracotta eagles and tile work. These elements are from the original 14th Street Station and date back to 1904, and were thought to be lost prior to this renovation. 

Installation featuring Eagle details. Source: MTA

Other pieces highlight historic directional signs, while others pieces of conduit. Some of these installations include phrases, to help provide context to the installation. One example is a red beam featuring the numbers 1904, which is the date of the original subway station.

Detail featuring “1904”. Source: MTA

In other cases the frames allow the viewer to understand the difference in the station’s original tile work against the more contemporary changes that were made throughout the station’s life. 

Detail highlighting original tile work. Source: ScoutingNY

Today this art installation incorporates historic detail into one of the system’s busiest, and most complicated stations, and allows thousands of riders each day to take a journey through the original New York City Subway system. 

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