Nostalgia from the subway?

The most unlikely exhibition in town: "Artists and Architects of the New York Subway." Yes, Virginia, there werem artists and architects in the New York subway , but trying to find traces of them today is about as easy as changing trains in Times Square.

The exhibition on view at the New York Historical Society through Jan. 31 is an exercise in nostalgia. It is sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Transit Authority in celebration of the Diamond Jubille of New York's first permanent subway, the IRT.

This system was hailed by the press when it first opened in 1904 as "the largest single contract in the History of Civilization." The deterioration of the subway now seems to some a melancholy metaphor for the decline of our own civilization.

No hyperbole was too great to praise it in the good ol' days. The New York Sun editorialized: "It is the testimony of engineering experts at home and abroad that this is the finest, handsomest, most complete, and best equipped underground railway in the world." As the exhibition indicates, the subway was not only a progressive engineering feat that put New York "50 years ahead of every other city in the world," but an attractive environment.

It is this latter point that most challenges our credulity, but along with mechanical memorabilia the show gives evidence of ornamental touches such as solid brass fixtures, mosaic trim, ceramic tile, wood paneling, and rattan seat covers that helped beautify the subway in its halcyon days.

Among the few abiding examples are the "Santa Maria" mosaics designed to announce the Columbus Circle station to immigrants. But buried in darkness since 1945 is the City Hall Station, which -- with its glazed ceramic tile, its high vaulted Gustavino arches, and three skylights -- was extolled by the New York World "as a cool little vaulted city of cream and green earthenware. . . ."

Fortunately, there are photographs on display -- old ones to remind us of the beauty that once was, new ones to create the illusion of a beauty still there. David Sagarin's call attention to the mosaics and bas-reliefs, and those by Tania shadow to create moody compositions on the walls and in the tunnels.

The New York subway today appears to have given way to the twin ravages of time and crime. Dirt, graffiti, congestion, and noise and air pollution are overpowering realities that underscore the bitter ironies o such early slogans as "subway air -- pure as in your home." When one compares New York's subway with those in Toronto or Europe or even with San Francisco's or Washington's, the picture is even more depressing. Yet to be fair, as Hugh Dunne, a Diamond Jubille consultant, points out, New York's is 75 years old, compared with San Francisco's 10 and Washington's 3.

He adds the defense that it is not only much older but much busier. In 1904 when the subway opened the population of New York was 3.4 million. It now transports that number in a single day. The IRT alone, since it first opened, has carried 47 billion -- 17 times the world population. The San Francisco system, in comparison, "has carried as many people in 10 years as the IRT on the first day it opened."

The New York subway is in short the oldest and one of the largest in the world, and its notorious complexity is in part a reflection of these distinctions. The map section illustrates the growth of the subway from a single line to the labyrinth we know today, the butt of jokes and the nemesis of out-of- towners. Mr. Dunne explains that advancing technology was responsible for the subway's expansion and confusing layering as earlier obstacles become surmountable.

Available transit funds are inevitably directed toward operation of the system rather than its restoration or beautification, but there is nevertheless a halfhearted acknowledgement of the need to improve the subway environment. Programs such as Operation Face-Lift (painting and repairs in 84 key stations) and an overall "signage" program to make signs more visible are aimed at improving the subway.

More ambitious is the Adopt-A-Station program, which began in the mid-'70s. It uses federal and matching private funds to restore and even refurbish stations, even to the extent of mounting murals. The exhibition includes a plan under this program for the historic Wall Street station. Finally, the bane of every subway system is graffiti, and its removal is perhaps New York's biggest underground battle -- aided at least by improved paint remover.

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