Yesterday, Gothamist had the chance to visit the abandoned City Hall subway station as part of a New York City Transit Museum members only tour, led by subway historian Joe Cunningham.
The original contract for the building of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Subway contained the following provision: “The railway and its equipment as contemplated by the contract constituted a great public work All parts of the structure where exposed to public sight shall therefore be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.” The City Hall station met all of these characteristics, save for efficiency, since it was not only on a single tracked severe curve, it served only local trains and was just a 600 feet from the Brooklyn Bridge station (now Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall) as can be seen in yesterday’s Gothamist Map of the Day.
A 1904 publication from the IRT proudly proclaims, “It might be readily have been supposed that the limited space and comparative uniformity of the underground stations would afford but little opportunity for architectural and decorative effects. The result has shown the fallacy of such a supposition.” The work of George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge in the design of this unique subway stations definitely confirms the IRT’s boasting. The landmarked City Hall station was built with fifteen Guastavino tile arches, Roman brick wainscoting, leaded glass skylights, plaques commemorating the construction of the subway and twelve (now eleven) brass chandeliers.
The station’s architecture made it a showcase for the city’s new rapid transit line when the subway opened on October 27, 1904. That day, Mayor George B. McClellan personally operated the first official subway train from the station. The subway itself had many more years of service and changes in store, but the City Hall subway station did not. By the time the station closed on December 31, 1945 it only served 600 passengers a day, had its skylights tarred over (for air raid protection), and never had turnstiles installed. The station had its street entrances sealed and was mainly seen by transit workers for decades.
Since its closing, the station remained basically untouched for decades, save for the moving of the commemorative plaques to the nearby Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station in the 1960s, but were returned in 1996. Reopening the station for passengers was made moot, when modern equipment, a huge platform gap and train lengths made the station useless for any service restoration. The station was visited by excursion trains, and Transit Museum tours until 1998 when security concerns ended this and torpedoed plans for opening the station as an annex to the Transit Museum. The tours were later allowed to return. Surface access was restored for the 2004 Subway Centennial and now serves as an emergency exit.
The tour itself begins on the downtown platform of the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station where the visitors checked in with Transit Museum Tour Coordinator Luz Montano. On the platform the group was introduced to subway historian Joe Cunningham who fielded some questions. The group then boarded an in service 6 train to access the station. Previously visitors had to jump about a foot over and a foot down to access the platform, but today there is a bridge plate that covers the gap.
After the group debarked, Cunningham gave a history of the station peppered with some fun facts, such as the station served as the inspiration for the slime filled abandoned subway station set in Ghostbusters II, and took questions. Then visitors were given a chance to explore the station
The station, which was cleaned ahead of the Centennial, is quite dirty with a coating of steel dust. There is some damage to the station, one of the platform skylights is severely damaged, but the others are relatively intact and there is some damage to the tilework. The sound of the trains navigating the curve is quite loud, even eclipsing the level of noise at 14th Street-Union Square, which is on a less severe curve.
The Transit Museum offers tours of various MTA facilities to both members and non-members; however some tours are members only. More information is available at the Transit Museum’s website or by contacting Tour Coordinator Luz Montano on (718) 694-1600.
Photographs from Triborough on Flickr; Triborough also has a very nice set of photographs from the tour.