A Brief History of the Subway Tile Art at 81st & CPW (AMNH Station)

New York's subway station at 81st and Central Park West (CPW), also known as the AMNH subway station, was first opened on 10 September 1932, and rennovation of this station was completed in 1999 after the planetarium had been added to the Natural History Museum in 1990 (at a great cost that still has not been paid off, might I add). The art at this subway station was produced by the MTA Arts for Transit Design Team in cooperation with the Museum of Natural History and is a study of the evolution of life from the big bang to the present day. The entire collection at this station is entitled For Want of a Nail, which alludes to the interconnectedness of all life. Many of the pieces have a red question mark on them, for reasons that escape me, although it might be associated with the enduring questions that humans like to ask; "Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life?"

The uptown subway stop (upstairs) is a collection of ceramic and glass tile and glass mosaics depicting a variety of animal species, extinct and extant, that I have been presenting to you this past month and a half. The stairways leading to the downtown (southbound) platform, which is located downstairs appropriately enough, are also filled with lovely ceramic, tile and glass mosaics, depicting a "Journey to the Center of the Earth" as I've dubbed it, the ocean (southern stairway), and starry sky (northern stairway).

The entire downtown platform consists of a series of fossil casts, making this platform resemble a fossil dig. These fossil casts are identified with the name of the animal in small type on the tiles next to them. These bronze relief casts are quite difficult to photograph because of awkward lighting, so they resemble dark blobs instead of bronze fossil casts. These casts include the singularly beautiful Berlin Archaeopteryx, which is one of my most favorite of all fossils, due to its artistic and scientific beauties. I shall endeavor to share those casts with you as soon as I figure out how to photograph them satisfactorily.

I originally started posting these images because several tile mosaic animals at this subway platform have been especially beautiful to my eye (the coelacanth is truly exquisite). I had no idea that this series would be as popular as it is, but because you've been so interested in it (many private emails, although, alas, fewer comments), I continued to share these images with you. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever identified all the animals depicted by these art works, so my blog presentation is "A First" in that sense.

If you wish to see the entire series of AMNH subway tile art images I've been presenting, click here for the archives. Be sure to come back and check again, because there ar emore images on the way.


MTA Arts for Transit


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This was a wonderful series, Grrl! I have a great book of subway art, and I always end up gawking and missing at least one train when I'm at that particular stop. I forget the url now, but there is also a webiste hosted by subway aficianados, and it includes maps of the extant and abandoned lines, architecture, history and all sorts of interesting things about the various subway systems. I even embedded an old subway token in my tile floor along with my horse's shoe and a seashell. Given that the house was in the midwest, wonder what future visitors will think the mystery of the token is?

I'd like to add my thanks for this wonderful series. It seems a shame that, while they credit specific artists for the works at other subway stations, there's no individual credits for all this fine work at 81st St.

When you finish this series, are you going to cover the birds at 34th St. for us? http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/artwork_show?188

yes, indeed, the birds at 34th street are next on my planned subway art photographic series.

it's so odd, to think that i was just playing with my new camera by showing you these images from the AMNH subway stop, but everyone's interest has made me into quite an aficionado of these art works, too. interestingly, i mentioned this series to some native NYCers a few weeks ago, and they informed me that i could ask for permission to photograph some subway art at stations that are now locked up and unused, or abandoned. i am already trying to find someone who can let me know how i can access these stations, just to photograph what's there to be seen. wouldn't that be fun, if i manage that, somehow?

This was a great series of posts. I was very familiar with the artwork on the downtown level because that was where I waited to go home after leaving the museum. I was less familiar with the uptown level because I usually just walk through without stopping on my way to the museum. Last time I was at AMNH I took the time to really check out the artwork on the uptown level.

About the abandoned subway stations, on NYC TV 25's show 'The Secrets of New York' they had a piece about the abandoned subway station under city hall. There is lots of artwork there, but the station had to be bypassed because modern subway trains could not make the sharp turn needed to enter it.

It woulds be interesting if you could get into there to take pictures, but I'm not sure how you would get access.

I'm happily suprised that these are so recent.
Kudos to NYC Metro authority.

Remember to be careful when you visit closed/abandoned stations.
Perhaps the metro authority might like to use your photographs along with your notes. They are good photographs and notes.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 16 Feb 2008 #permalink

Thanks so much for posting these pix. I am from Chicago and I worked for 3 years at the AMNH field station in the Chiricahua Mtns of Portal, AZ. (SWRS or Southwestern Research Station). I refer you to the web site, but its such a dull and boring presentation of an exciting and phenomenal place. http://research.amnh.org/swrs/ So even tho my paychecks came from AMNH, I have never even seen pix of the museum, much less the subway art! Thank you again!

This is a cool series, I like those mosaics too. Shouldn't there be a key to the species somewhere?

By David Harmon (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

Considering the very real possibility that that subway station, along with most of the rest of them, are likely to be under water in the coming decades, I'd say it was very important to record the beauty we created because all that is likely to be remembered of us is our stupidity and intransigence.