The Ruins of Old Union Square

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking pictures in Union Square for my article on The Warriors filming locations, when I happened to pass by these six crumbling columns on the mezzanine level near the 4-5-6 train.

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Now, I’ve walked by these things a zillion times in my travels across New York City, but it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never actually stopped to look at them.

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I’ve always just assumed them to be remnants from the old Union Square station, one of New York City’s original 28 subway stations, and it turns out that this is correct.

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Dating to the Union Square of 1904, the station’s walls were once adorned with these fantastic terracotta eagles, along with some beautiful mosaic work:

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The walls were uncovered and saved during one of Union Square’s many renovations, and installed as an art installation by Mary Miss in 1998. I love how the innards of the walls have been included in the display…

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…showing a sort of geological strata of a New York City subway station wall:

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The wall portions are arranged so that they steadily deterioriate…

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…perhaps signifying the death of the old Union Square?

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Now, here’s the thing – I’ve always known about these wall portions.

What I didn’t know about are the red frames.

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See, as it turns out, the wall portions are just a small part of Miss’s installation. In fact, there are dozens of relics from the old Union Square strewn all over the station, all of which can be found enclosed by a red frame. And once you start looking for them, you’ll suddenly see them everywhere.

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For example, I never thought twice about this Broadway Line directional arrow – but looking at it again, I now realize how incongruous its design is to the rest of the station. In addition to the mosaic Broadway text, note how the surrounding white tiling is in the old square style, while an additional mosaic strip runs along the top – all stopping abruptly at the red border.

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Ditto this great old “Exit To Street sign.” Again, I’ve noticed it countless times before, but never stopped to consider how out of place what’s within the red frame is to what’s outside. In a way, each is literally like a window into the past:

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Wandering around Union Square, I started finding red frames in more places than just the walls. Here’s a column you’d never think twice above – but wait! There are those red frames, and between them, we find a white-tiled column topped by a tiled stripe, an all but extinct creature in modern Union Square:

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Here’s another red frame, one of my favorites, again highlighting not only the mosaic stripe along the top, but the difference in the old white wall tiling vs. new (and is that authentic old-fashioned New York City grime?):

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Along one of the connecting passages…

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…a very long mosaic stretches the entire run:

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It gets even crazier, as the red frames turn up in the most unexpected of places. Here’s one looking down from the mezzanine above the 4-5-6 train…

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…and if you look in at the right angle, you’ll see it’s highlighting “steel-bulb angle columns.”

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In the corridor running north toward the 17th Street entrance, there are a bunch of slits cut into the wall…

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…which offer a slightly more abstract window into Union Square:

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For example, a tangle of telephone wiring:

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I’m sure this is old news to a lot of you. But for anyone else like myself who’s been to Union Square a million times and never stopped to look, learning about the red frames is an eye-opening experience, as you suddenly realize you’re basically surrounded by a museum exhibit for the Union Square of old.

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Ha, and all this time, I just assumed there was a fire extinguisher on the other side of that red frame.

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-SCOUT

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26 comments

  1. Union Square was my stop for 9 years. Over the years I have noticed every detail you pointed out, but somehow I never put 2+2 together in terms of the red borders! Especially the random ones in the long connector hallway from the Broadway line at 16th st. I, too, always thought many of them were probably fire extinguishers!!

  2. Scout this is a perfect example of why your blog is so awesome. Not just because you pause and think “hmmmm…” when you see something, but you actually go back and investigate, and then share your finding with us, the one’s who don’t stop, who aren’t there to stop, or who like to think we would stop if we happened to see what you see. As always, it’s a pleasure to view the NYC through your eyes.

  3. This is so interesting!

  4. Fantastic share. Thanks!

  5. wow! Amazing, thanx

  6. Such a great find, as ALWAYS is the case with you Scout! Thanks a million for sharing. Greetings from France! :)

  7. That’s incredible. I never realized that the red bars meant something! I’ll have to pay a bit more attention to those things next time I’m there!

  8. You should point out that this is part of the permanent art installations that are literally all over New York. http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/

  9. Was there really an arcade down there like in the movie,And if so where do you think it was?

  10. That is one of the coolest things I have seen in quite some time. You have a sharp eye! Thanks for writing this.

  11. Scout, thank you so much for sharing these beautiful and fascinating insights into my favourite city :)

  12. One of my favorite ones is the mosaic on the stairs up from the L that directs the subway rider to what is now a blank wall, but was presumably once a pathway to another train.

    • The mirrors are part of the installation.

      On the MTA website, Mary Miss is quoted: “Looking in, you will see the station’s workings – sometimes you will see layers of words and reflected images, including your own!”

  13. You have an incredible artistic eye. I would never have noticed or this installation had you not so adeptly pointed it out and explained its artistic value.

  14. Great post as usual. I wonder if anyone knows why part of the original structures have a mirror to the left as in the ‘Exit to Street’ and “to broadway line’?

  15. I go through that station every workday, and NEVER noticed those red frames. I’m completely gobsmacked that I didn’t know about any of this. I’ll have to look more closely this evening. Thanks for pointing out the forest behind the trees.

  16. I agree with Ann and the others who go thru here all the time. Me too. I didn’t give the red frames much thought. That is why we have a scout to show us these things. I love looking at my city thru your eyes. Thanks, Nick for another eye opening post.

  17. You need to have Audio with this post that says “please stand clear” of the “moving platforms” as trains enter and leave this station. Urban legend has it this is a result of an error in the station design, not a track bend for geological reasons.

  18. For years I thought there was an electric transformer ready to explode under Father Duffy Square (the north end of what most folks consider to be Times Square). While talking with a Transit Authority inspector on one of my projects, I learned that it is in fact an auditory sculpture. It is down under the subway grates.

  19. So so awesome, thanks for this!

  20. I remember when they started rehabbing Union Square station thinking that they were going to restore it. Instead they left this behind. It seems such a shame to me that they covered and tore apart so much original mosaic tile work and terracotta plaques and left behind what I’ve always thought to be an ugly and cheap replacement. These red frames only serve to highlight the beautiful station the MTA destroyed.

  21. Also if you go down to the 4/5/6 platforms and look against the walls you can see the original station platforms poking out from the sides.

  22. Your variety of urban locations in NYC makes my location portfolio in Texas look like tumbleweeds and sand. Thanks for the great insight into the City.

  23. having lived in NYC for 10 years but now living in Sydney Australia I LOVE reading your posts about all the things that make NYC the amazing place that it is.

    like many others that commented so far, the Union Sq. station was part of my daily commute and I never noticed the red borders until this post!

    thank you for continuing to teach me new things about the city and I look forward to more of your discoveries!

  24. You missed one interesting detail of the crumbling columns…

    A few years ago I was on a first date. We were on our way through the Union Square station when my date stopped me as we passed the old columns and pointed up–on the underside of the red beams that run along the ceiling are a series of names, including her last name. I was pretty surprised. She explained that the names were the last names of the architects of the original Union Square station (her great-grandfather was one of them). They were placed there as a way of honoring the people who designed the station.

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