An Essay on Original Subway Station Design

by Mark Brader, modified by James Bow from Mark’s posts on misc.transport.urban-transit, and reprinted with permission.

See Also:

The subway stations that opened between 1954 and 1968 have been criticized by some as ‘Spartan’, ‘boring’, and ‘similar to a public washroom’. These claims, however, ignore the subtleties of the design of the original stations. Together, these stations share a similar look that unifies the subway system as a whole. The fact that care went into the design of these stations is shown by considering the choice of tile.

The following is an article posted by Mark Brader on misc.transport.urban-transit in the early part of the 1990s. It has appeared in the UCRS newsletter Rail and Transit and has been reposted online a number of times since. Mark Brader has kindly allowed us to reprint this article in Transit Toronto, with minor modifications.

The article we are quoting heavily from was written in response to a post discussing the tile arrangements of the Broad Street Subway in Philadelphia. The original poster, Sandy Smith, noted “the original route opened in 1927 from City Hall to Olney Avenue. Four basic colours were used for the trim and hex-design tilework along the roof line and at intervals along the walls: crimson, green, brown and blue.” Mark Brader replied with this information:

An extended version of the same idea was used in the Toronto subway when it first opened in 1954, and on the extensions opened up to 1968. A particularly nice example of this, I have always felt, was the design of the first four groups of Toronto subway stations opened, from 1954 to 1968. Each station had tiled walls with a very simple two-colour design: a solid background colour relieved by a stripe of darker contrasting colour about 7 feet up. Originally all signage was cut into the walls and the letters painted in the colour of the other part of the wall. The station name appeared in small light letters every 20 feet or so along the dark stripe (handy when standing on a crowded train), and in large dark letters every 50 feet or so around chest height. Other signs such as for exits were in small dark letters, in the same colour.

These were the colours on the original Yonge line as it opened in 1954:

St. Clairyellowgreen

The “trim” green was darker than the “background” green [which looked more blue to me -jb], of course; and the grey colour has always looked slightly purple to me. The background green was also a different tint of green than the green that was used on the University Subway. Anyway, if you read down each column, you will see the obvious pattern. I actually produced the above table from memory of some of the stations’ colours and from knowing what the pattern was. Note also that the 12 stations used each colour combination exactly once.

Those original stations used glassy wall tiles (called Vitrolite, I believe) that have not been available for years — so as tiles were lost to vandalism or other damage in some stations, they were gradually replaced by painted metal panels. Whether for this reason or otherwise, all 12 original stations have now been partly or entirely retiled with newer materials. Some of the original grey tiles still remain visible at Eglinton station. Queen Station has been almost completely retiled, although efforts were made to retain much of the original colour, and the top trim remains the original tile.

Of the other 10 stations, not one has retained a background colour closely resembling its original one. A few have vaguely similar colours; Dundas, for instance, went from a pastel yellow to a yellow so livid that a little while after it was completed the TTC felt obliged to soften it a bit by replacing the cold-white fluorescent lights in the station with warm-whites. Others were not even close. This was partly a function of the range of coloured tiles available to the TTC in the material they chose, but I find it quite regrettable.

Even worse, they also changed the trim colours with no reason whatever. King and College still have the same background as each other — now brown — but now King has the red lettering and College has blue. Argh! (These stations also lost their trim stripe, and for a while also had no station names where the trim stripe had been, though these were eventually supplied.)

When the Bloor-Danforth line was opened in 1966 and 1968, a colour cycle similar to the above was used, but with more combinations used since the line was longer. This line has 5 background colours: beige, grey, yellow, green, and (almost-)white. The trim colours are green, blue, black, and one that I would call a reddish brown, but some other people call a dark red. The cycles generally run in the order shown when traveling inward to the city centre. Islington and Warden stations have special colours (see below), befitting their original status as terminals.

Leaving Warden, the pattern is followed from Victoria Park (grey/black) to Yonge (yellow/blue). Leaving Islington, it is followed from Royal York (beige/black) to Spadina (yellow/black), but then St. George is irregular, having the expected green background but green rather than red-brown trim. After this hiccup the cycle resumes for one more station, Bay (white/green).

Wardenbeigemultiple red/brown shades *
Victoria Parkgreyblack
Main Streetyellowred-brown
Castle Frankbeigered-brown
St. Georgegreengreen *
Dundas Westgreygreen
High Parkwhiteblack
Old Millgreyred-brown
Royal Yorkbeigeblack
Islingtonwhitetwo shades of blue *
* - These stations do not follow the pattern.
In the case of St. George, we do not know why.

This scheme only pertains to stations with opaque walls. Where a surface or elevated station of 1968 has glass walls, there is a red trim stripe at waist level, and where this is part of the platform, the station name is in white.

Islington and Warden diverged from this sequence slightly, taking on special colours to denote their status as subway terminals. At Islington, the standard white and blue are supplemented by a third colour, a light greyish blue about halfway between them. The 3-colour scheme is used only on two walls — the outside (trackside) walls at platform level. All the platform-side walls, i.e. where the stairs come down to the (center) platform, have the standard 2-colour design in white and blue. On the main part of the outside walls, the light blue mostly replaces the white, but there are little highlights each created by rotating a square of 3 tiles and replacing one with the normal blue, the other with white. The top edge of the outside walls has the usual blue trim with white lettering; the large station name lettering is all in the usual blue no matter whether it’s on a white or light blue wall.

Warden station resembles Islington, but is more distinctive. First, its trim colour is red-brown, rather than the blue that the pattern would call for. (Presumably beige walls and blue trim would not have allowed the selection of a harmonious third colour.) Because the station is elevated, the only full-height walls adjacent to the platform are the end walls of the station, and these are the only place where the red-brown upper strip of trim tile actually appears. The low walls surrounding the stairwells have usual beige tile, with the station name in unusual medium-size letters in the usual red-brown paint.

The outside walls at platform level do follow Islington’s 3-colour pattern in different colours, but none of the colours are the standard ones used elsewhere on the line, because those walls are made of brick with no tile surface. They are beige (but lighter than the beige tiles), light brown, and a darker brown that is not at all reddish. The trim strip at the top is two bricks high, and so wider than at other stations, with white lettering for the station name (but this may have been a change from the original design; see below). The larger station name lettering uses the standard red-brown paint, so these walls actually have 5 colours.

Most of the Bloor-Danforth stations still have all their original tiles. A lot of people find them boring. I find them elegantly functional (I also like Mies Van der Rohe’s buildings), and if the TTC decides to mess with them in the name of renovation, I’ll be annoyed.

One 1966 station that does not retain its original appearance is Christie. As per the colour pattern, it originally had beige walls with green trim. However, one day in October 1976, an arsonist started a fire in an otherwise empty car of the last subway train of the day. The train was stopped at Christie station and evacuated without anyone being hurt, but it was too late to put out the fire. Four subway cars were destroyed and the station suffered considerable damage. Enough beige tiles were found to repair the walls — though you can still see that they don’t quite match — but the trim tile was changed to red-brown in part of the station. Similarly, some of the trim paint was initially redone in blue, but this was later changed back to green.

Christie is also one of several stations where the paint colour of the small station name lettering in the trim strip has been changed from the main wall colour to white, presumably for superior legibility. The change is particularly welcome at Chester and Runnymede, where the colour contrast was lowest. Other stations so modified include Bathurst, Spadina, Sherbourne, Greenwood, and perhaps Warden, as well as Eglinton station on the Yonge line.

I have skipped over the 1963 University section. This had only 6 new stations, from St. Andrew to St. George; several of them have been renovated and I don’t remember the original appearance of all of them. I think the following may be correct:

St. Andrewgreyblack
St. Patrickgreengreen
Queen’s Parkgreyblue
Museumyellowblue (should be black)
St. Georgegreengreen (should be red)

As with the Bloor-Danforth subway, St. George departs from the sequence, substituting green tile for red. Museum is also an exception, substituting blue tile when it should be black. It’s worth noting that Museum and St. George were the first stations on the system to make use of the tiles currently found on the Bloor-Danforth line. It may be possible that the colours the TTC wanted for the station weren’t available and they made do.

((Update: January 2008): Photographs from this article cast doubt on the colour scheme of Osgoode listed here, as this photograph suggests that Osgoode’s trim was blue rather than red. Until we can get more colour images of St. Andrew and Osgoode stations in their original appearance, any speculation on the colour scheme sequence of the University subway can only remain speculation)

St. Andrew and Osgoode Stations were among the quickest to be retiled. The tiles deteriorated rapidly, here, and when the TTC decided to fix matters, the material had become unavailable. As a result, the TTC resorted to a complete renovation of the wall covering of the two stations, erasing most of the evidence of the original tilework. At St. Patrick and Queens Park stations, the paint used for the station names was peeling off the walls, so metal signs were introduced in all four stations at this time. Museum station underwent renovation late in 2007 and early in 2008 to alter its appearance to reflect more strongly the atmosphere of the museum it served. Only St. George has much of its original tilework in place.

Incidentally, when the 1954 Yonge stations were retiled, the TTC also took the opportunity to move the advertising panels that had been on the center posts between the tracks of the 8 underground stations with outside platforms. The new panels are set into the walls.

This means that (1) they saved on tile by reducing the effective wall area, and (2) the advertisements are now visible at each stop to people on the trains, when previously they weren’t. Sigh. On the other hand, (3) they won’t find it so easy as before to add MORE advertising panels, and (4) if a panel happens to be vacant, in several stations this means that the original wall colour is revealed behind it.

In 1973 and 1974, the North Yonge subway stations broke the tile patterns, instituting a style of their own. Then the Spadina line opened in 1978, abandoning the idea of a common architectural style and giving each station an extremely distinctive (and 1970s) appearance. It has been a free-for-all ever since.

Original Subway Tiles Image Archive

Thanks to Mark Brader for making this information available to Transit Toronto and to Justin Bur for his corrections.