The most encyclopedic history of the art and architecture of New York City’s subway is slowly being compiled by one man, who sketches every design detail of its stations. Philip Ashforth Coppola (who also goes by Philip Copp) published his first volume of Silver Connections in 1984, and, working chronologically, he estimates he’ll finish his project by 2030.
“Sooner or later, a lot of these will change. They may not be remembered anymore, that’s why I’m making a record of it,” Coppola says in One Track Mind, a 2005 documentary short created by Jeremy Workman.
Both Coppola and Workman were on hand for a Q&A following a screening of One Track Mind at the National Arts Club on February 24. Workman said there was a new release planned for later this year, and the film is now available on Amazon Instant. Workman is currently continuing his cinematic exploration of New York City obsessions with a film on Matt Green who is walking every block of the five boroughs.
One Track Mind, which Workman covertly filmed post-9/11, when filming in the subways was restricted, follows Coppola as he pensively counts the tiles in mosaics, sometimes whipping out a tape measure for accuracy, and patiently draws the ornate details of the subway stations. No touch is too small, from keyholes to the grand kiosk entrances of the 6 line or the mosaic monograms of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. He visits each place between two to three times to take it all in, using a camera for the broader details, although noting in-person all the colors and dimensions for the best accuracy. But it’s not just the visuals, as Coppola is intent on finding the names behind the artisanship, spending hours with microfilm in the library and other archives. He then types it all out for his hefty self-published books that are filled with his meticulous art.
Four volumes of Silver Connections are available through New York Bound Books, going up to the early decades of the IRT stations in the Bronx and the Hudson & Manhattan RR, with Volume II back in print last month. The New York City subway system is one of the grandest 20th-century civic projects in the world, including incredible spaces like the now-closed City Hall station with its Guastavino tile arches and glass skylights. Yet, as shown by the recent interest in the colored tile system of the subway, there’s a lot we overlook in our underground commutes. Coppola started the project when the stations were being renovated, and while many of the original features survive like the beaver mosaics at Astor Place or the ships at Fulton, others were covered. As he said at the screening, “This is being lost and I wanted to make a record of what we have.”