The 5 Most Architecturally Distinguished Subway Stations in New York

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Yes, that's a subway stop. In New York City.Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Auth

This week New York Magazine explores our love-hate relationship with the MTA.

Subway passengers tend to keep their eyes lowered most of the time, locked on phones or knees, and the facilities aren’t generally worth raising them for. Sometimes, though, the stygian world below the streets offers reasons to linger and look — a fanciful guerilla artwork, an ornate entrance, a station that was somebody’s pet project and came out better than it really needed to be. These five subway stops, old and new, are worth getting off the train to see even if they’re not on your commute — plus one honorable mention, which would be the finest if it were actually in use.

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81st Street–Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History specializes in intertwining spectacle and education, and the show begins even before you set foot inside. All through the station, a sequence of gorgeous mosaics traces the story of evolution, from primordial crustaceans embedded in the platforms to elaborate deepwater scenes, saurian silhouettes, and glass-and-tile portraits of species on the verge of extinction. The artwork, collectively called For Want of a Nail, was completed in 2000.

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81st Street–Museum of Natural History.Photo: Andria Patino/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

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Coney Island–Stillwell Ave

Coney Island may have lost its luster as a populist entertainment magnet, but the subway terminal there recalls its days of glory and summertime hordes. The immense shed that makes up most of the station is only a decade old and laminated with photovoltaic panels, but its high rafters would have allowed the smoke and steam of a century ago to rise and roost among the trusses.

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Coney Island–Stillwell Avenue.Photo: ullstein bild

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East 180th Street/Bronx Park

Today’s mistreated straphangers might find it hard to believe that commuting by rail once had glamour, but the evidence is in this recently restored stucco villa from 1912, which looks as though it should be approached from an avenue of cypresses amid the smell of fermenting grapes.

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East 180th Street.Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Auth

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34th Street–Hudson Yards

As midtown’s center of gravity shifts toward the Hudson, hemming in the West Side sky, the new 7 line extension celebrates the heavens. Passengers emerge into a tiled vault filled with zodiac signs and celestial spirals, then ride the escalator up beneath an arched transparent canopy, like an observatory bubble.

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Hudson Yards, opened last fall.Photo: Andrew Burton/2015 Getty Images

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Fulton Center

Once the system’s first wave of grandeur subsided, subway stations were mostly nasty, busy burrows, but the idea that even underground commuters might need light and dignity may be returning. In this new portal to a once-chaotic junction, a glass cupola swirls light down into the station and pulls the eye up for a quick fix of architectural spectacle on the way to work.

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Fulton Center.Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

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Honorable Mention: City Hall

On October 27, 1904, when the first IRT chugged into motion to inaugurate the subway era, it pulled out of City Hall station, an underground palace of tiled vaults, lit by brass chandeliers and daylight filtering through the ornate skylight. Too small and sharply curved to accommodate full-length trains, the station has been closed for 80 years, but the opulent catacomb remains visible to passengers who stay on the 6 past the last stop, when the train loops back around through the past. 

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City Hall, closed since 1945.Photo: Library of Congress

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