In One Track Mind: Drawing the New York Subway, Philip Ashforth Coppola chronicles the mosaics, ceilings, staircases, and plaques of New York City’s subway stations.
When Phillip Ashforth Coppola first started his detailed renderings of New York City subway stations, MTA officials dismissed him as a “foamer” (the derisive term for fans who “foamed at the mouth” with their transit-oriented enthusiasm).
But Coppola is no ordinary fan. He is an artist and an archivist, and for nearly four decades he has carefully sketched the mosaics, ceilings, staircases, and plaques of New York City’s subway stations. In a new book, One Track Mind: Drawing the New York City Subway (Princeton Architectural Press), Ezra Bookstein and Jeremy Workman have compiled Coppola’s drawings and added notes to give viewers a detailed look at transit gems that often overlooked. Some of stations lovingly re-created on the page no longer exist, lost to time or refurbishment: the City Hall subway station, with its glass skylights and viridian tiles, can now only been seen via special tours or Coppola’s loving re-creation on the page.
Coppola began to draw subway mosaics in 1978, after noticing that tiles in the Bowling Green subway station and Cortland Street station had been destroyed during renovations. He consulted books, maps, dictionaries, newspapers, and remaining station walls, to record the past and present of the subway’s artisanship. Coppola self-published the first iteration of the project, called Silver Connections, in 1984—it has since expanded to six volumes. Thus far, he has covered 110 of the 472 existing stations. Coppola is 70 years old now, and hopes to finish his project sometime after 2030.
The book is filled with tidbits about the ideas behind the station designs. The beaver plaque at Astor Place, for example, is a nod to the station’s namesake, John Jacob Astor. He established his own trading post in Oregon and sold beaver pelts for his initial fortune before turning to real estate and becoming “the landlord of New York.” Some pages later, an illustration of circle strip beams at Columbus Circle lead into a story about class. The beams, it turns out, were modeled off of the decorative molding on ceilings popular in upper-class homes at the time. Rich people preferred their own carriages over the subway—so artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge put in decorative strips along the ceiling beams to bring the middle- and lower-classes a taste of architectural finery in their own transit space. The book also includes lead-stained pages from Coppola’s notebooks, complete with notes in looping cursive.
Coppola’s work revels in New York’s Gilded Age, when the subway was still considered groundbreaking and its artistry was something marveled at openly. In the book’s introduction, Workman and Bookstein write that they hope it “can also remind New Yorker and visitor alike that there is beauty all around us. You just have to look.”