Sunday, November 14, 2010

Riding the El - 2 - Sixth Avenue


More images from the collection of negatives I described last time. We're going to look at '116' format film rolls 79 and 81. There are missing rolls and neither one of these has the complete eight exposures. Each image is on a separate piece, which I have arranged by the numbers handwritten on the top border.

The first four images here are at one location, the Eighth Avenue station in 53rd Street. The Sixth Avenue El came down Columbus and Ninth Avenues on the Upper West Side, and turned into 53rd St to run across to Sixth Avenue. The only station between 59th St (Ninth Ave) and 50th St (Sixth Ave) was at Eighth Ave (53rd St).

These are the first images I have ever seen of the station. It was over a narrow Manhattan cross street, but they somehow fitted three tracks and two platforms between the buildings.

79-7. Downtown end (that is, the eastern end) of the downtown platform at Eighth Ave.

The tall building in the rear has a sign for THE GUILD THEATRE, which is on 52nd St between Broadway and Eighth Ave. It's now called the August Wilson Theater. Jersey Boys has been playing there for a while. The building beyond it with the center tower, across the street, is now the Neil Simon Theater.

Two ads for whisky— Old Drum and Three Feathers (not Four Feathers!)— and two for candy— Butterfingers and Oh! Henry. I can't make out the one on the right with the cartoon figure.

Notice the man with camera. The current series of images may document the last days of the Sixth Avenue El before it closed in 1938.

The small sign next to him reads "53&8TH".

81-2. 53rd St looking west from Eighth Ave station.

We're at the west end of the downtown platform. In the distance a train rounds the curve at Ninth Ave. Above it is an upper deck carrying the Ninth Avenue El express track over the junction.

81-3. 53rd St station, uptown side.

This is from almost the same location as 81-2, but the photographer has turned around and walked in a little ways from the end of the platform.

The portion of the station with canopies is the original length of the 1878 station. The so-called Swiss chalet stationhouse was typical of stations on the Sixth Avenue El. This station was centered over Eighth Avenue. The station name signs call it 53RD ST 8TH AVE.

The el occupies so much of the street width that you could almost climb into an apartment window from the platform.

81-4. 53rd St looking east from Eighth Ave station, from a train front window.

Similar to 76-1, last time.

81-5. 50th St station, uptown side seen from the downtown side.

Similar to 76-2, last time. I don't think it's the same day. This shot is in brighter sunlight.

The 1870s style of the el meets the 1930s style of the Rockefeller Center building.

77-2. 33rd St station, looking uptown from the uptown side. I omitted this one from part 1, because it's so dark. It's atmospheric though, and the exposure shows buildings in the distance that are obscured by the lighter exposure of the next image.

81-6. 33rd St station, looking uptown from the uptown side.

That's Gimbel's department store on the left. The same building is now the Manhattan Mall. The next one up was Saks 34th St. Technically the same building, though it was refaced as Korvette's, and then completely gutted and refaced again (an architectural "grandfather's axe"?), it is now Herald Center.

The original platforms were not directly opposite each other, but rather both were located as close as possible to the diagonal Broadway crossing. The downtown side has lost its chalet roof to accommodate the overhead footbridge that led into Gimbel's.

The railway company could not get approval to build the station over Broadway, so the obvious site at 34th St, a wide cross street, was not possible. Even in the 1870s popular sentiment was very protective of Broadway. Crossing it at all was a point of contention.

81-7. Rector St station, looking downtown from the uptown side.

Very similar to 76-7. You can see a train approaching around the reverse curve from Greenwich St.

This time we will continue south one more station.

The streets are a little confusing downtown, so here's an aerial photograph from 1924, snagged from the city's NY City Map web site. The Rector St station in Trinity Place (81-7) is outlined near upper right. You can even make out the overhead footbridge. Notice the similar Ninth Ave El station over Greenwich St (not outlined) to the left.

Rector St was originally the downtown terminal, and the end of structure was at Morris St. After the Manhattan els were consolidated under one management, a connector was built to the Ninth Avenue El in Greenwich St. In the aerial photo you can see the reverse curve that the train in 81-7 is negotiating.

The trouble was that the Sixth Avenue El was at a higher elevation, so for another block the two els ran side by side as a four-track structure in Greenwich St, as the Sixth Ave came downgrade. They came together barely in time to enter a station at Battery Place, outlined near the bottom of the image.

81-8. Battery Place station, looking uptown into Greenwich St.

Sixth Ave and Ninth Ave trains merged right here at the north end of the station. Yes in the station. The downtown Sixth Ave track doesn't even come alongside the platform (left) for at least a car length. Maybe you couldn't get on or off the last car here.

Look at those little old buildings along the west side of Greenwich St, roughly a hundred years old at the time of this photograph. They must have witnessed Charles Harvey's experimental first section of elevated railway, a lightweight structure for cable cars that he built over the east curb line in 1866. The buildings are all gone now, replaced by the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

79-8. Looking north in Columbus Avenue, crossing 106th St.

The train in the distance is rounding the curve at 110th St, where the el cut over to Eighth Avenue to continue up to 155th St. The building in the center of the image is still there, at the northeast corner of Columbus and 106th.

I know this one seems out of nowhere after where we've been, but it is the next image on roll 79 after the first one on this page. So it looks as if that day the photographer got on a Sixth Ave train at the 53rd St 8th Ave station and rode up to here on it.

You know, the view everyone took was at 110th St, the 'suicide curve', where the el ran high above the street. But not this guy. He gives us the more everyday view you would see just before you got there. And for that precise reason, this is a more rare view.

I wrote almost a year ago about the tendency all of us have to take photos of special events but not ordinary life.
If you see something every day, you don't need a photograph of it. And then it's gone, or more often you're gone, gone from that place or that routine, maybe happy to be gone. Then some time later it occurs to you that something once so familiar has been taken from you, and it cannot come back.
How many countless riders took the Sixth Avenue El, as a matter of routine, until one day it was not there any more.
Long ago, it must be. I have a photograph.

More from this collection next week, but something a little different.


  1. Thank you for presenting these outstanding pictures of 6th Ave El 53rd St Station. I added a link to this page from the image of the 53rd St Station in my Picassa Web Album.
    Your last paragraph is illustraed in this image "" as the old couple watch the 6th Ave El pass into history.

  2. This view of the Battery Place station was added to the Picasa 9th Ave El album.
    There is another overhead view at "".

  3. I've enjoyed looking at these photographs. I didn't know that 8th Avenue in Manhattan had an elevated Subway Line which should not be confused with todays 8th Avenue Independent Subway.

    Mr. J

    1. It did not. There was a stop on 8th avenue, but no 8th Ave line. The 4 lines were 9th avenue, 6th avenue, 3rd avenue, 2nd avenue.