Most subway stations in New York have a similar palette. White tiles, grey cement floors, the yellow edge of the platform, and all those shiny silver trains. Many stations have mosaics dating from the first few years of the 20th century and some have nice new ones – dating from the 1990s, like the 81st Street Station on the B and C lines or the 66th Street Lincoln Center station on the 1 line. But this station, the Rockefeller Center station where the B, D, F, and M lines stop, has something wonderful that not only adds to the color palette but gives a glimpse of the station’s past where you might least expect it.
This staircase, unlike so many staircases in the New York subway system, is made of wood. It has been painted over and over again in what I think is about four different colors, the last of which is a high gloss black. But underneath, as the paint wears away, there is a rust color, a vibrant yellow, and a flat uninteresting tan. And each color is visible as the color on top of it wears off.
This metal stair rail runs alongside the wooden one and this time of year, it will chill you to use it. I’d like to say the wood one warms to the touch but it doesn’t and in both cases, you will find your hands colder at the bottom of the stairs here than they were at the top, assuming you use the stair rails like I do.
Someone took the time to carve a few letters here, a name there, and at the bottom of this staircase, where the paint is completely gone and only the varnished wood remains, you’ll see the name “Ken.”
But I love the palette; that multicolored, Jackson Pollock, paint splash of colors from what is probably 80 years’ worth of paint. It covers the wear inflicted on that railing every day by tens of thousands of cold hands in the winter, sweaty hands in the summer. We have worn our way down to the rust-colored paint here, down to the yellow paint there, to the tan over there, and finally, to the original varnish. The last person who varnished that staircase could have been the artist who installed it when the station opened, coinciding with the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1930.
There’s a metal railing that runs next to it – probably just to meet some City code. It would surprise me if this wooden stair rail were removed any time soon though, because it is just as solid as the new metal railing. It could use a fresh coat of paint – which I normally would applaud. But not here. When the painters come in to cover this railing again, probably with a coat of that high gloss black, I will miss the colors and the small view into Rock Center’s past.