The Long, Hazy History of the New York City Subway Bench

The unembellished wooden seat is a landmark of the city’s underground rail system, but the largely unexposed evolution of its design deserves greater recognition.

You may not consider it such, but in my opinion, New York City’s wooden subway bench is a modernist icon. Gritty in presentation but inoffensive to the eye and advantageously cheap to manufacture, the thick aggregation of solid oak blocks doesn’t ask for much attention. The ubiquitous piece of public furniture sits at the centerline of MTA subway platforms, offering refuge to tired legs awaiting too-often-delayed trains. Connected by threaded rods, the varying sizes of rectilinear wood join together in a manner similar to other iconic furniture of the 1940s; Pierre Jeanneret’s office chair, Hans Wegner’s Chair 28, and even Gio Ponti’s Chairs for Casion San Remo all speak the same language.  

Despite their overt presence in public spaces, not much is recorded about who designed New York City’s subway platform benches. It’s believed that the original mission-style oak bench, present at the subway’s early 20th-century inception, was the work of the Stickley Brothers. Most of the city’s subway furniture was manufactured by the Stickleys under the guidance of "underground Renaissance man" Squire J. Vickers, a chief architect of the NYC subway who designed approximately three quarters of the system. (Also a euphuistic painter, Vickers’s expressive character can be found in the varied colors and geometries of the subway stations’ wall mosaics.) 

"From what I understand, there is no public knowledge of the history of today’s wooden bench design," says Daniel Brenner, acting collections manager and research archivist at the New York Transit Museum. "Most likely Squire Vickers did the design work, as the elements of the station—like the change booth—would all have been integral to his designs. This style of bench shows up in the reopening photos of the Interstate Rapid Transit [in the early 1900s]." 

The most recent, widely recognizable model of the wooden subway bench, introduced in the 1970s, has remained unaltered for decades.

Older bench styles were replaced every couple of years or so, and as such, few of them lasted before a new design would come through. "The old-style subway benches started to be augmented and replaced around 1970 or so, initially by recycling green fiberglass bus seats from 1956 Mack buses for many locations," says Bill Wall, a retired train service supervisor for New York City Transit. "Some stations had new tile work put in at that time, so the newer-style benches started to show up, replacing the long, heavy benches and much smaller elevated station slat styles that had survived." The most recent, widely recognizable model of the wooden subway bench, introduced in the 1970s, has remained unaltered for decades. According to Metropolis, the design is a variation of a model commissioned in 1973 by the New York Port Authority to provide benches for the Hudson River region. The first ones were manufactured by the Hudson Design Service and seated four people. Later, the design was expanded to accommodate six. This succinctly assembled seating mechanism survived "the fall of modernism"—the boldly colored and gaudy cultural revamp following World War II into the postmodern age. 

Over the years, the city has experimented with changes to the ’70s subway bench style, adding spacers between passengers and removing the backrests; solutions put forth by the MTA to address the century-old alleged problem of bench sleeping. (The design of public infrastructure in a way that limits its use is referred to as "hostile architecture.") But since 2010, NYC Transit officials have been rather indecisive in committing to either complete removal or redesign of the longstanding subway benches. The MTA even went so far as to put the older benches up for sale as "underground furniture," priced at $650. When the benches hit the market, NYC Transit assistant chief operating officer Mike Zacchea told Gothamist: "They’re sort of iconic. They’ve been around a long time. They’re massive. I can see them sitting in a backyard being weathered for a couple more years and serving as a conversation piece."

Three people wait for the subway on a bench at 135th Street station in Manhattan, New York City.

Then, in early February of 2021, many of these benches, so common to the subway landscape, disappeared. The MTA sent out a tweet in response to inquiries into the benches’ whereabouts stating: "Benches were removed from stations to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them." After immediate uproar, the MTA deleted the tweet and said it was posted in "error." The lacquered wooden benches weren’t entirely beloved: Transit authorities fault them for being unhygienic (a problem that already existed, but became more acute after the emergence of COVID-19), but attempts at instituting alternatives, like new stainless-steel benches in some stations, were criticized by commuters for being too cold and uninviting, in addition to lacking aesthetic harmony with the dernier cri. 

In recent years, the MTA has also started introducing an updated version of the ’70s-style wooden subway bench that substitutes the rectangular block spacers for black-coated steel loops. This model, barely modified from the original, brings to mind George Nelson’s platform bench—another superstar of modern furniture. And though its history may slip away, largely undocumented, I believe that the long-lived, chunky wooden bench should be revered and celebrated as a modernist icon, grouped with furniture of George Nakashima and the like. The subway timepiece deserves to have its story told before the bench becomes just another item of memorabilia furniture at the New York Transit Museum, to be looked at and never used again.

Top photo by Conor Boyle, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Correction: August 12, 2022
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the introduction of the 1970s subway bench.

Related Reading:

The History of the Tripp Trapp Chair, Which Changed the Children’s Design Game

What Happens to Cities When We Are Free to Roam?

Published

Last Updated

Topics

Lifestyle

Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.