Philip Ashforth Coppola documents the transit system’s oft-overlooked mosaics in painstaking detail.
In the 59th Street station along the Lexington Avenue subway line in Manhattan, the 4 and 5 trains arrive every few minutes. Commuters rush in and out; there’s hardly a still moment on the platform. But right after the doors close and the train pulls away from the station, you might see a lone man still standing there, looking not down the tracks for the next train, but at the wall, sketching in a small notebook.
In 1978, Philip Ashforth Coppola, a lifelong New Jersey resident, began a project: to document, through drawings and descriptions, the art on the walls of the New York subway system. He planned for a couple months; nearly 40 years later, he’s still not done. Coppola now thinks it’ll take him until 2030 to document all 469 stations, and though he’s slowing down a bit—he’s in his late sixties now—he has no plans to stop.
Over the course of his project—collected in six illustrated volumes called Silver Connections—Coppola has advanced methodically through the maze of New York’s transit system. His is an artistic pursuit—the Rhode Island School of Design graduate’s drawings are exacting—but it’s more than that, too. When he comes into the city to work, Coppola goes one of two places: into the stations, or to the New York Public Library, where he pours over old records, tracing the history of the lines from the early 20th century to the present. His images reveal a savant’s knowledge: Coppola lists the year and contract under which each station was built, dating back to the original 1900 commission; he can detect the signature of each architectural firm involved.
But it’s the intricate, mosaic artworks that originally drew him in. As a child, Coppola’s father told him that some subway stations had tile pictures embedded in the walls. “I didn’t have a particular affinity for transit, or the city, when I was young,” Coppola says. But he began to take more notice. In the late 70s, he started to see construction spring up in some stations; they were being modernized, stripped of their old embellishments, and replaced with rows of standard brick. Bowling Green had already been redone at that time, but Coppola went into the archives of the New York Transit Museum, searching for clues to how it once looked. He came across large, color photographs, and what he saw was both remarkable and devastating: where now there was bland uniformity, there once were elegant cornices and intricate patterns of sea green and burnt orange tiles.
Coppola drew it all, labeling the colors and zooming in on the details in the margins. The Cortlandt Street station was under construction at the time, but Coppola reached it before the ferry boat mosaic was covered up. His first sketch of that station, dated August 3, 1978, was rough, but all the elements are there—the colors, the precise number of tiles that make up the composition.
Since his early drawings, Coppola has settled into a routine. He works on one line at a time, moving from the Manhattan terminus to the outer boroughs. He’ll spend an eight-hour day in a station; he’s writing up 59th Street now. “I have to understand how the station’s constructed,” Coppola says. It’s not just about the decorations; it’s about how they fit into the overall architecture. “I’ll count I-beams and pillars; I’ll measure floor tiles to get a sense of distance,” he says. Once he has the big picture, he’ll zoom in on the details of the mosaics. “There are a lot of elements,” he says. “You have to count rows and label the colors, and if you really want to get the composition down, you have to understand how much distance is between one element and the next. I have to know: what’s the height of the tile on the wall? Are they four inches square? Are they three by six?”
It’s a lot to take in, Coppola says. “What usually happens is I’ll get home, all wiped out and feeling kind of gritty, then I’ll realize—wait, I don’t know how long that extension is, or where exactly that name placard falls on the wall. So I have to go back and do it all over again,” he says. He brings a camera to supplement his intensely detailed notes, but still, it takes him two or three trips to get a station down right.
But it’s worth it. “Some people say I’m doing a great favor for the city, but I’m not the one to say yes or no to that,” Coppola says. Others have been less reticent. In 2005, the filmmaker Jeremy Workman made a documentary, One Track Mind, about Coppola’s work, and Coppola would occasionally receive letters from the MTA, thanking him for his attention paid to a system often seen only as a necessity, not an artistic achievement in its own right.
Over the course of his project, Coppola has watched the attitude toward the stations shift. “When the subway opened in 1904,” he says, “people were blown away—it was beautiful.” But soon, it became part of the daily routine; it lost its novelty. Then the Great Depression hit, and war broke out. “When threats and instability hit, art and décor kind of take a backseat,” Coppola says. He remembers reading an article in a 1957 issue of Transit—the old MTA employee magazine—that described how a woman had called up the transit authority, wondering why some stations were decorated with the mosaic artworks, only to have the man on the other line say: “What mosaics? In our subway?”
Now, Coppola says, people have begun to again acknowledge the beauty of the subway. “There’s been a movement toward preservation and appreciation,” he says. “People are saying: ‘Look at what we’ve got here.’” Coppola’s glad for the change. “Otherwise, I’d be out of a job,” he says.
Silver Connections, $40-$175, at New York Bound Books.