A manhole cover is generally deemed successful if its round shape keeps pedestrians from plummeting into the earth, and communicates the subterranean systems below through its design. New York City has thousands of these underground access points. Although easy to stride over without a glance, there’s a visual history of the metropolis in their cast-iron patterns, which chronicle decades of participation by artists and iron workers in crafting this ubiquitous part of the built environment.
[Before going further into this story, I would be remiss in not stating how abysmal the term “manhole cover” is in describing these circular caps to the sewers, electrical wires, old coal chutes, and forgotten waterways. Men are far from the only people to utilize these gateways, but for the sake of clarity, and the widespread use of the word, I’m going to use it in this piece.]
New York doesn’t have the most beautiful manhole covers in the world, that honor could be bestowed on Japan where they’re lushly colored and feature regional scenes of nature and city life, or maybe Seattle where over 100 were commissioned as public art, ranging from Haida-influenced designs to spider webs.
Nevertheless, being a city with some of the most impressive infrastructure, including the Croton Aqueduct and its gravity-fed water supply, New York boasts 19th-century relics still serving their purpose, and 20th-century covers with their own public art legacy. On the short Jersey Street in Soho, behind the Puck Building, is what’s believed to be one of the city’s oldest manhole covers, emblazoned with the words “Croton Aqueduct” and the year 1866. It’s not the grandest historic site, and like most manhole covers is likely to have a used cigarette or scrap of trash wedged on its surface, but it’s one of those enduring reminders of the incredible engineering that’s allowed the growth of a city of millions.
I’m a relative newcomer to the well-trodden area of manhole appreciation, which has propelled publications like Diana Stuart’s 2003 Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City, and Bob Jessen’s 2004 New York Lids: A Field Guide to New York City’s Coal Hole Covers. My curiosity was recently stoked by a Jane’s Walk tour in May led by artist Michele Brody. Back in 2002, Brody’s manhole cover design was installed on Wall Street, and it had a star-shaped relief referencing the Roman architecture of the now-destroyed Assay Office, the façade of which is on view in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alas, the Assay cover was removed by mistake in 2009.
Brody initially created her 14th Street manhole covers walk in Manhattan as a self-guided tour for the 2009 Art in Odd Places (you can still find it online), but a whole mob of people turned out to experience it in-person. And once you get into it a surprisingly captivating unseen language is revealed. The “ECS” covers for “Empire City Subway,” constructed in the 19th century for telegraph and phone cables, now mask Verizon communications, including internet.
The “IRT” and “BRT” letters for “Interborough Rapid Transit” and “Brooklyn Rapid Transit” are reminders of the multiple subway networks that merged into our current transit system. And even earlier parts of the landscape are sometimes hiding below these covers; I took a tour with urban explorer Steve Duncan in 2012 where we peered through manhole covers at the Minetta Brook, a natural waterway of Manhattan that is now consumed by the city, but still invisibly flows.
And then there’s the “NYC Sewer” covers, which sometimes include “Made in U.S.A.” or “Made in India” in fluctuating sizes — on a few the origin of the cover is bigger than the utility text itself. In some decades the fact that the covers were imported was a source of pride, but in more patriotic decades that fact is less celebrated. Now through pieces like filmmaker Natasha Raheja’s short documentary called Cast in India, it’s difficult to dissociate the images of barefoot workers pouring the scalding hot iron for those three words.
Along with Brody, artist Lawrence Weiner and designer Karim Rashid have participated in this practical public sculpture. In 2000, 19 manhole covers designed by Weiner were installed south of Union Square in a collaboration between the Public Art Fund, Con Edison, and Roman Stone Construction. Each read “In Direct Line with Another & the Next,” a reference by the text-favoring artist to the New York grid. The Public Art Fund confirmed with Hyperallergic that only two of these are still in situ: one on the east side of Union Square along the benches, another on the steps of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in Chelsea.
Near Weiner’s Union Square survivor, you can also find one of Rashid’s “Millennium” covers commissioned by Con Edison through a 1999 competition. Outside the doors of 4 Irving Place, a golden-hued cover with a pattern of curving lines gives the illusion of dimensional movement. According to the New York Times, it’s a tribute to the link between “data and energy,” while, like Weiner, responding to the orderly grid of the streets.
Earlier craftsmen like Jacob Mark, who manufactured manhole covers with a six-sided star pattern embedded with colored glass, also have their names linked to this metal medium. For the most part, though, the covers are anonymously designed, coming from unnamed workers at the utility companies, although plenty of iron foundries in the 19th and 20th centuries used them as a sort of advertisement. The Farrin & McCullough foundry has one decorated with a sunflower on St. Luke’s Place, while Cornell’s Iron Works manufactured one with a lovely floral motif found on Charlton Street. However, per a 2000 Forgotten New York post on manhole covers, it was once joined by another ornate foundry example, which I was unable to find on my visit this month.
Despite often weighing over 300 pounds, manhole covers can be just as fragile as any part of the city’s architecture. If the old granite sidewalk is replaced, it’s often too much trouble to fit in the obsolete coal chute cover. If a manhole cover no longer serves its function, or becomes a hazard, like the Con Edison cover that branded a woman who fell from her skateboard in 2004, it’s unlikely historic preservationists are going to rally around it.
On her tour, Brody showed us a turn-of-the-20th century cover from the Manhattan Refrigeration Company on a Belgian block street of the Meatpacking District. It was partly consumed by newer asphalt, its distinctive round and rectangle shape seeming to recede into the road. Who knows how long such a piece of the past will remain, as the Meatpacking District continues to shift away from its market roots towards luxury development, and its Belgian block streets continue to age. A manhole cover’s lifespan is limited by the changes in the city around it, yet while it remains it communicates the particular moment in which it was first installed, and the utilitarian design shaped for that purpose.