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A look back at the art of the Metro Subway on the occasion of its 32nd birthday

Opening Day at Charles Center Metro Subway Station. Average daily ridership that first month of operation was 21,000, which has more than doubled since 1983.

Jon Berle

Next month Metro Subway turns 32 on November 21. When the MTA opened Metro Subway in 1983, and again when it was extended to the suburbs (completed in 1987), artists were commissioned to design and install artwork in each of the 14 stations. The materials used varied from concrete and steel to colored glass and stencils, and ranged in price from $40,000 to $127,200. Many were by local artists, but two of them were done by artists of international renown.

Bearden’s mosaic at Upton Metro Subway Station

The Upton Station mosaic "Baltimore Uproar" was designed by Romare Bearden, one of America’s most popular African-American artists. Created in Italy, the 14’ x 46’ Venetian glass and ceramic mosaic features Baltimore-born jazz legend Billie Holiday. The mosaic sections were shipped to New York by boat, trucked down to Baltimore and then assembled at Upton by relatives of the same Italian artisans that created them. Although North Carolina-born Bearden worked mostly in New York until his death in 1988, he also lived in Baltimore from 1935 to 1937, working as an editorial cartoonist for the Afro-American newspaper.

Artist and writer Romare Bearden, seen here at age 33, was also a songwriter who wrote the jazz classic Seabreeze which was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie. 

Rockne Krebs was another famous artist whose talents helped brighten the Metro Subway stations. Krebs’s 1986 Vine Covered Passerelle, an elevated covered pedestrian walkway, connected parking lots off Wabash Avenue to Reisterstown Plaza Station. Due to unexpected deterioration from severe weather unfortunately, this had to be replaced in 2003 by Mark Thomas’s Tensile Membrane.

Mark Thomas’s Tensile Membrane

MTA reached out to a nearby elementary school, and their budding young artists created handmade ceramic tiles that were installed along the inside walls. The designs the students painted and fired themselves are provide an additional local, imaginative touch to Tensile Membrane.

The ceramic tiles in Tensile Membrane were created by local elementary school children

Very few photos remain of the Vine Covered Passerelle, but on Metro’s opening day, MTA gave dignitaries at the grand opening ceremonies original pen and ink and watercolor lithographs by in-house illustrator David Michael. They depicted Baltimore bus and rail scenes, and one of them featured the Vine Covered Passerelle.

Original passarelle by Rockne Krebs at Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station