They call me the Manhole Cover Lady,” says Diana Stuart, author of Designs Under Foot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City (Design Books, 2003). After attending her lecture on what might seem a curious topic, I spoke to her about her book and how she came to write it.
Like most New Yorkers, I had previously ignored manhole covers—those cast iron disks that provide entry into the myriad tunnels beneath the city streets. But now, even at the risk of being run over, I look for them on my walk home. What I often see, especially in manhole covers more than 100 years old, are the works of art Ms. Stuart claims them to be. Their intricate patterns of cart wheels, star bursts, botanical images, swirls, flowers, hexagons and other shapes represent the work of anonymous artisans employed by numerous foundries in 19th-century New York. “Theirs is a lost art,” Ms. Stuart said, adding: “What these unnamed artisans had was a pride of workmanship, and they created individual masterpieces.” Through her book, lectures and walking tours, she has won new converts like me.
How, I asked, did she come to regard manhole covers as works of art, as well as objects created for a utilitarian purpose? “By chance,” she replied. An experienced photographer who for two decades has been snapping pictures of streetscapes, buildings and the often-threatened artifacts that adorn them, she happened to glance down during one picture-taking expedition on the Upper West Side. What she saw was a manhole cover whose unusual design immediately impressed her with its value as art. That same day she found a number of others in the same area, “and I realized they represented a story that needed to be told.”
Since then, she has spent weekends exploring the streets of all five boroughs, camera in hand. After accumulating 90 photographs, she spread them out on the floor of her apartment to show to an architect friend, who told her, “You must do a book.” She arranged the resultant volume according to the type of design, with brief descriptions of each next to their photographs. Among the oldest and most striking are manhole covers and coal chute covers with jewel-like glass insets, some of which I have seen close to my own neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. These insets, often of various colors, provided a way of introducing light into cellars and other underground areas before the advent of electricity.
Cast iron though they may be, and apparently indestructible, a number of the most historic manhole covers have disappeared since Ms. Stuart began her work. She gives the example of one especially memorable cover that suffered this fate. Her first photos of it were taken on a stormy day, but when she returned to take more, it had vanished beneath newly laid cement.
“New York City has no consciousness about saving things of historic value,” she said—or, as critics have sometimes maintained, New York stands out as a city that loves to destroy its past. Several photos in her book are the only surviving record of covers that have vanished, like a convex cover with stars made at the Weil Brothers foundry, one of the many foundries that thrived in the 19th century when New York was a center of that industry.
Initially believing that museums would see the rarer manhole covers as worthy of preservation, Ms. Stuart approached several, but met with minimal interest. The one possible exception may be the Museum of the City of New York, which plans to sponsor an exhibit. Without landmark status, however, many of the most notable covers remain at risk of being lost forever. She has traveled to other cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Although striking examples are to be found there too, the most outstanding, she believes, are to be found in New York, which “has by far the most comprehensive collection.” But it remains a collection at risk.