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BEN The Build-It Blog

NYC Subway Benches Part 1

03/19/2020 by Yoav Liberman

A typical NYC subway bench stained with a reddish varnish.
A typical NYC subway bench stained with a reddish varnish.


Benches are no doubt the most recognized and iconized among the furniture that dominate our public spaces. Their functional contribution and their aesthetic attribution to our culture, parks, streets and subway stations is seminal. Benches appear in movies, are mentioned in poetry and literature, and are depicted in both popular and fine art.

This heavy oak bench probably has seen it all. From the infamous blackout of 1977 to 9/11 and to the Covid-19 outbreak.
This heavy oak bench probably has seen it all. From the infamous blackout of 1977 to 9/11 and to the Covid-19 outbreak.


Much like any other metropolis, New York City too is blessed with some iconic benches of different designs and pedigree. Although many of our park and street benches, and especially those made of cast iron and wood (still) preserve a thematic fidelity to the classical/Victorian styles that emerged in the 19th Century, in recent decades we have learned to recognize an emerging plethora of modern designs that managed to earn their own seat at our civic table.

The style of the so-called Modern bench often reflects the predominant aesthetic trends of the decade or era in which it was designed and made. Modern designs are usually (but not always) leaner, clearer and deprived of ornamentation. Straight lines, rectilinear shapes and perhaps a few rounded corners governs the Modernistic landscape.

Enter the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority wooden benches.

One of the most iconic design landmarks in the NYC subway system is the clanky, boxy and heavy wooden bench. This piece of furniture is so synonymous with the subway system that whenever someone notices a plan to refinish or replace these benches, a minor public outcry erupts on the local newspapers. I used the pejorative epithets of clanky and boxy intentionally, as although the overall non pertinacious simplicity of this piece places it in the Modern canon. Its gluttonous proportions - though well justified to mitigate its heavy everyday use, is not what most will identify as Sleek Modern.

This dark brown bench is paced with dividers to prevent homeless people from using it as a bed
This dark brown bench is paced with dividers to prevent homeless people from using it as a bed


As someone who grew up in the 1970s’ I can attest that this style of rectilinear furniture was everywhere: In chairs, tables, sofas and cabinets. But while perhaps the only advantage for building furniture with rectilinear and thicker than necessary components for the home is the simplification and reduction of production time and labor, in the public space it certainly makes sense and pays off in the long run. As you eximine these NY subway benches you can see the logic behind their heavy design. After all, the public officials who commissioned their design wanted a simple bench that is inexpensive to make, can withstand use and abuse, and can be refinished easily by employees who are not professional furniture restorers. These benches, made of rock hard oak are connected together via formidable threaded rods and other biffy timber frame-like hardware. While their overall design was kept uniform, there has been one variant that I noticed - the prominent sitting divisions to prevent a person from turning the bench into makeshift bed. While most of the benches in service have beefy dividers that pace the span of the entire bench, some benches have more delicate and curvier battens to achieve the same outcome. For a few decades now, this bench’s solid design had been unchangeable except for an occasional sanding and a coat of stained varnish here and there. Just as this furniture has become a recognized bastion of design stability and continuity in the NYC metro, recently things have begun to change a bit.

Caption: This detailed picture (and the pictures above) reveals how the bench is made and assembled. Notice that all the parts are laminated from smaller strips of oak and are held together via threaded rods which are capped over by a wooden plug.
Caption: This detailed picture (and the pictures above) reveals how the bench is made and assembled. Notice that all the parts are laminated from smaller strips of oak and are held together via threaded rods which are capped over by a wooden plug.


Next time I will show the new benches that are joining the fleet.
For further reading:
MTA Rips Backs Off Benches At West 4th Subway Station To Repel Homeless

Why Did The MTA Completely Sand Down These Wooden Subway Benches?

Iconic Wooden Subway Benches on the Way Out?

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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