When thinking of New York City’s subway stations, words like “elegant” or “breathtaking” probably don’t come to mind. But one trip to the abandoned City Hall Subway Station in Lower Manhattan can surely change your mind. Old City Hall is of the most architecturally stunning subway stations you’ve most likely never stepped foot in.
City Hall, also known as City Hall Loop, was the original southern terminal station of the first line of the New York City Subway, built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), named the “Manhattan Main Line”, and now part of the IRT Lexington Avenue Line. Opened on October 27, 1904, this station, located underneath the public area in front of City Hall, was designed to be the showpiece of the new subway. The platform and mezzanine feature Guastavino tile, skylights, colored glass tilework and brass chandeliers. The Rafael Guastavino-designed station is unique in the system for the usage of Romanesque Revival architecture.
Opening in 1904
The official start of construction took place on March 24, 1900, at the front steps of City Hall, at a ceremony officiated by then-Mayor Robert Van Wyck. After construction was complete, this station was the chosen place for hanging commemorative plaques recognizing the achievement of building the entire New York City Subway system. A mezzanine area above the platform once had an ornamented oak ticket booth (which no longer exists).
The subway opened to the public on October 27, 1904, after opening ceremonies the day before attended by Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. More than 15,000 people were issued passes for the first series of rides from the platform. At precisely 2:35 p.m., the first subway train departed from City Hall station with Mayor McClellan at the controls. The event was so heavily attended that police Commissioner McAdoo said every policeman in the city was on duty all day and far into the night. At the time of the opening, President A. E. Orr of the Rapid Transit Board requested that all New Yorkers join in the celebration by blowing whistles and ringing bells. At street level, in the pavement in front of City Hall, a plaque can still be seen commemorating groundbreaking for the subway in 1900.
At the time, the station was also called “City Hall Loop.” Unlike the rest of the subway line, the City Hall station had tall tile arches, brass fixtures, chandeliers, skylights, polychrome tile, and elegant curves that ran along the platform. It was lit by wrought iron chandeliers and the three skylights of cut amethyst glass that allowed sunshine onto parts of the platform. During World War II, the skylights were blacked out with tar for safety.
New Year’s Eve 1945
In the years after the line’s construction, increased subway ridership led to longer trains, and thus longer platforms, in the 1940s and early 1950s. The City Hall station, built on a tight curve, would have been difficult to lengthen, and it was also quite close to the far busier Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall station. In addition, the new, longer trains had center doors in each car, which were an unsafe distance from the platform edge. Movable platform extensions were installed to fill the gap similar to the ones at the South Ferry, Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall (which no longer has gap fillers), Times Square, and 14th Street–Union Square stations, which had a similar problem.
City Hall, notwithstanding its architectural grandeur, was never an important station. In its final year of use, it served only 600 passengers per day and was not open at nights. The Brooklyn Bridge station, located a short walk away, at the opposite end of City Hall Park, was more popular, as it provided both local and express service, including trains to Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge streetcar terminal and Park Row station on the BMT elevated lines were above for easy transfers. Given the extensive renovations that would have been required to bring the station up to modern standards, the city decided to close it instead. The final day of service was December 31, 1945.
City Hall Station today
On the surface, all that can be seen is a concrete slab inset with glass tiles, the skylights for the platform below. This patch of concrete is in the middle of a grove of dogwoods in front of City Hall, close to Broadway. However, for the 2004 Centennial Celebration, one of the street entrances was restored (and presently resembles a modern station entrance), and the station was opened for the duration of the celebration. Otherwise, the station is now used only as an emergency exit.
Though it’s been closed since 1945, the subway station was never demolished. To this day, after the 6 train makes its final downtown stop at the Brooklyn Bridge station, it travels through the old City Hall station in its route to turn back uptown. For the regular New Yorker, it’s not so easy to get inside. You even have to pass a background check before you’ll be allowed in. However, at present, tours are open to registered members of the museum and require advance payment and reservations.
For detailed instructions on how to visit City Hall Station click here!