THE DUAL CONTRACTS
Between 1910 and 1920, the City, along with the IRT and BMT companies, undertook a massive construction project known as the Dual Contracts. The contracts were "dual," in that they were signed between the City and two separate private companies. These contracts provided for the expansion of the subway and elevated networks to open up areas of the city without transit service. Typical of the Dual Contracts subway station design was intricate mosaic tiling, such as the 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and 86th Street signs (see above). A reference to "Dual Contract signage" refers to this style of squared-off mosaic tiling utilizing Arts & Crafts-style type. In all, some twenty-plus lines were constructed under the Dual Contracts in Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, most of these under the aegis of Squire Vickers, architect of the New York subway system.
Additional History Resources for the New York Subway Mosaics
"The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway" - an online article on the subway system's signage by Paul Shaw, great pictures of subway signage, history, etc.
"Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story" - Excellent hardcover book, also by Paul Shaw. An expansion of the article above. Available at Amazon.com for $25.00
Codex 99, a blog on the visual arts and graphic design. The link will take you to an excellent article on the history of the subway system's mosaic signage, great pics.
The Original 28 Stations - Article on the "Forgotten New York" website about the design and construction of the first twenty-eight stations of the NYC subway system, designed by Heins & LaFarge.
"Underground Renaissance Man" - A New York Times review of a 2007 exhibition of the work of Squire Vickers, the architect of over 300 subway stations. Excellent slide show of his tile work.
Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway, [Hardcover], published by the New York Transit Museum. Available from Amazon. Survey of the history of all design aspects of the system including signage, ticket booths, cars, and maps.
Two firms were pioneers in creating these masterful ceramics. The earliest work was done by Heins & LaFarge (artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge), starting in 1901 and continuing up to 1907. Heins and LaFarge were both relatives of John LaFarge (brother-in-law and son, respectively), a leading stained-glass artisan of the day. They were part of the Arts and Crafts movement and worked in the Beaux-Arts architecture style, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
They knew what materials would stand up well to heavy-duty cleaning and scrubbing. They worked with the ceramic-producing firms Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. Their ceramic artwork includes colorful pictorial motifs relevant to a station's location, for example:
• The South Ferry loop station is decorated by 15 bas-relief representations of a sailing ship on the water.
• The Astor Place station is decorated with large ceramic beaver emblems, representing the beaver pelts that helped make John Jacob Astor wealthy.
• The 116th Street – Columbia University station includes a bas-relief emblem representing nearby Columbia University.
As well as pictorial plaques and ceramic signs, Heins and LaFarge designed the running decorative motifs, such as egg-and-dart patterns, along station ceilings.
The signs were were prepared in studio and then shipped in sections to the stations. The company produced many of the larger and more distinctive plaques: the ships at Columbus Circle; the eagle at 33rd Street; the beaver at Astor Place; as well as numerous decorative name and number plaques at Brooklyn Bridge, Bleeker Street, 14th, 18th, 42nd, 50th, 103rd, 110th and 116th Streets.
The manufactured tiles employed "faience" glazing that produces an opaque, glazed ceramic, which is fired twice, as opposed to single-fired terra cotta, and therefore achieves a greater range of colors.
Squire J. Vickers took over the system's architectural duties in 1908. He created the most recognizable signage in the NYC subway system, the so-called "Dual Contract" signs (see info at left). Vickers simplified the decorative borders surrounding the name tablets, did away with the bas-relief terra cotta signs (mainly for ease of maintenance), and created a substantial number of decorative borders which run across the top of the tiled walls of each station.
His most distinctive style consists of a rectangular area with multiple inset borders of contrasting colors, with a wonderfully fluid and elegant Beax-Art typeface based on the "slab-serif" fonts of the turn of the century. The best examples of his work are found on the IRT Lexington Avenue line, served by the 4,5, & 6 trains, and the IRT Westside Line.
According to Vickers, most of the signs produced during his tenure were actually designed by long-time friend, W. Herbert Dole, who was also his Assistant Architect.