Checking out the old South Ferry station before it closes forever

Mosaic station identification sign, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)

First, the backstory.

On 16 March 2009, a new South Ferry subway station, the southernmost subway station in Manhattan, opened. The old South Ferry station, which originally opened over a century earlier in 1905, had served millions of commuters well, but it had always had its limitations. When the New York City Subway was originally built, local trains had only five cars, and so stations where only local trains stopped were built just long enough for five cars. This later proved insufficient, so local trains were extended, as were local stations — where possible. That’s the reason the beautiful original City Hall subway station was shuttered at the end of 1945, and it’s why the architecture and signage of some older subway stations abruptly changes partway along the platform.

City Hall subway station
The City Hall subway station, which was closed at the end of 1945. (Photo by Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The old South Ferry station, built as a loop where terminating downtown trains could turn around and return uptown — like the City Hall station — couldn’t be extended. But, unlike City Hall, it was too vital to close: there wasn’t an alternative station nearby, and it gave commuters a needed connection to the Staten Island Ferry. So it remained open, though only the first five cars of a ten-car train could platform.

Gap filler, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan
A platform extender fills the gap between the curved platform and the open doors of a waiting 1 train.

But, as I mentioned, it was also a loop, and you know what happens when you align a ruler-straight subway car with a curved platform? It leaves large gaps between the platform and the train — gaps that really are big enough for someone to fall into. Mind the gap, indeed! So the old South Ferry station had mechanical platform extenders that filled the gap in front of each train car. But that also made service at the station slower, since arriving trains had to wait for the gap fillers to extend and departing trains had wait for them to retract.

(There was also an inner platform within the loop, but the curve was so tight that trains could open only their center doors. It proved so problematic that the inner platform was closed in 1977, though the tracks are still used, particularly by downtown 5 trains which terminate at Bowling Green on weekends and use this loop to turn around and return to the uptown track.)

So in 2009 a new, modern South Ferry station opened. It was a true terminus, with the tracks ending on either side of an island platform. In addition to making the station fully accessible, it also allowed more frequent service on the 1 train: MTA New York City Transit could decrease rush-hour headways from four minutes to as frequently as 2½ minutes — 24 trains per hour.

But then, a mere three and a half years later, the unthinkable happened. On 29 October 2012, hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and hit Lower Manhattan with a nearly two-meter (six-foot) storm surge which flooded streets, buildings, and tunnels, including subway tunnels and stations. Millions of liters of salt water filled and virtually destroyed the new South Ferry station and its sensitive, state-of-the-art electronics and other equipment.

Decorative tiles, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)
Vintage 1905 ceramic tiles depict a sailboat. Fifteen of these tiles decorate the original South Ferry station.

Five months later, on 4 April 2013, the old South Ferry station was reopened to restore the 1 train’s vital connection to the Staten Island Ferry. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York state agency that operates the subway, had to figure out what to do about the old station, with repairs estimated at $600 million or more.

Now, four years later, the MTA’s Fix & Fortify repairs on the new South Ferry station are almost complete. Since the idea behind the repairs is to leave the transit system more resilient and able to weather future storms with less damage, once the old South Ferry station closes it may never open to the public again. So last Saturday, 18 March 2017, I took some time to visit the station and take in its early-20th-century details and design. Here are some photos and videos from my visit.

This video shows a train entering the station and gap fillers extending before the doors open.

In this video, the same train leaves the station. Notice the train pause while the driver waits for the gap filler signal to clear. Also notice how loudly the wheels scrape against the rails, despite the lubricant which is sprayed on the tracks to reduce friction.

The MTA plans to reopen the new South Ferry station in June 2017, after repairs that cost $344 million.

Check out my piece in the latest issue of Utah Planner

Utah Planner 2015-7.pub
The front cover of the October/November 2015 issue of Utah Planner.

I’m happy to note that my October 2013 blog post entitled “Collegiate brutal: Why brutalist-style buildings are so common on American college campuses” is a featured article in the latest issue of Utah Planner, the newsletter of the Utah chapter of the American Planning Association.

In the piece I highlighted a recent article by J. Bryan Lowder at Slate about brutalism’s rise as the architecture of choice at many colleges and universities across the United States, including my own, the University of Utah and its College of Architecture and Planning (CA+P). Mr. Lowder dispelled the myth that such buildings—characterized in part by heavy use of concrete and few windows—were built to thwart student riots in a time of social unrest. Rather, Slate reports, the reason was much more mundane: buildings made of concrete are much, much cheaper. Yet it also helped universities look like they were taking modernity head-on.

In relating it to my own experience in Utah, I said that I actually had some affection for the CA+P’s home in the brutalist Art and Architecture Building. “It always reminded me of the gatehouse of a medieval castle. It was dark, with most daylight blocked out in much of the building, the recessed incandescents effecting the faint glow of torches,” I wrote. But I also admitted that I may have been alone in my affection. I concluded: “University administrators were looking after the bottom line a little more than they were looking to quell student aspirations. Though, as any student who has taken classes in a cold, colorless, concrete brutalist building may tell you, they may have succeeded in doing that, too.”

Read the original post on my blog, and check out the October/November 2015 issue of Utah Planner below (my piece is actually on page 11, not page 12 as the cover states).

Why does everyone hate SLC’s new courthouse?

 

This 10-story building is dominating the southern end of Salt Lake City’s skyline—and also, apparently, dinnertime conversations in Utah’s capital. (Photo by brackenm via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Why does everyone hate the new federal courthouse in Utah’s capital, The Salt Lake Tribune asks. Everyone, that is, except architects, who are patting each other on the back over the building’s “envelope-pushing” “aspirational aesthetic” (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

But perhaps the funniest part of this article? This line: “The 10-story glass structure … sits on the corner of 400 South and West [T]emple, dominating the southern end of the skyline.” Funny that (a) a 10-story building could “dominate” anything, much less a skyline, and (b) that the southern end of the skyline is just four blocks from the northern end of it.

Read more
Why all the hate for Salt Lake City’s new federal courthouse?
by Jim Dalrymple II
The Salt Lake Tribune, 19 April 2014

Collegiate brutal: Why brutalist-style buildings are so common on American college campuses

My first day as a student at the University of Utah, I passed through heavy wooden doors and entered the labyrinthine complex of corridors and classrooms where future architects and urban planners learned their craft. It always reminded me of the gatehouse of a medieval castle. It was dark, with most daylight blocked out in much of the building, the recessed incandescents effecting the faint glow of torches. The bare concrete and brick walls were always cold to the touch; it may have been dank were it not for a modern climate-control system. I rather liked it, though I may have been alone in my affection.

Angular, heavy, austere, concrete brutalist buildings are a hallmark of college campuses in the United States. Rare is the campus without at least one of them; rarer still is the one that doesn’t inspire a considerable amount of derision in modern eyes. But why do American universities have so many brutalist buildings?

The reason most commonly given—to prevent student riots and occupations—is in all likelihood an urban legend, writes Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder:

Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style.

In fact, Mr. Lowder points out, “the philosophy behind Brutalism—which was developed in the ’50s and early ’60s, again well before the student rebellions began—was directly opposed to repression and control, a detail which makes the style’s later association with totalitarianism all the more ironic.”

The real reasons? First, it was modern and vogue, eagerly adopted by universities anxious to “demonstrate their modernity bona fides.” Second, “building in concrete was way, way cheap.”

So, there you have it. University administrators were looking after the bottom line a little more than they were looking to quell student aspirations. Though, as any student who has taken classes in a cold, colorless, concrete brutalist building may tell you, they may have succeeded in doing that, too.

Read more
“Were Brutalist Buildings on College Campuses Really Designed to Thwart Student Riots?” by J. Bryan Lowder
Slate, 18 October 2013

Photo: The Art and Architecture Building at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Image by Paul Richer/Richer Images via the University of Utah.