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New York City’s abandoned City Hall subway station is one of the the city’s most mythical places – accessible but barely so. It’s so beautiful, New Yorkers can hardly imagine a time when so much attention could be lavished on our transit system. And in some ways, it’s hidden in plain sight.

Read on for the secrets of the old City Hall subway station:

10. The Old City Hall Subway Station Was Built for the Opening of the NYC’s First Subway Line

The Interborough Rapid Transit system (IRT), New York City’s first underground line opened on October 27, 1904 to great fanfare. The City Hall subway station was the southern terminus of the IRT line which ran to 145th Street. Designed as the “crown jewel” of the new new transit system, the station reflects the values of the City Beautiful architectural movement – that beautiful architecture could engender a better civic society. It was also a time when New York City’s elite were trying to prove that the city of industrialists and businessmen could compete culturally on the same level as those in Europe. The City Hall subway station was built in the same spirit as Central Park and Carnegie Hall – public amenities spurred by the private interest from the city’s wealthiest.

9. The Architects of the City Hall Subway Station

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The main consulting architects on the IRT stations were George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, who handled everything from the fare control stations above ground, to the layout of the subway stations, to the tiles on the walls. The City Hall subway station is particularly unique because of the involvement of R. Guastavino & Co., who were responsible for the curved skylights and the vaulted tiling so characteristic of many of New York City’s grandest places including Grand Central Terminal, Ellis Island and Manhattan’s Municipal Building.

Unlike the generally simpler tiling scheme in the rest of the IRT subway system, City Hall was clearly intended to impress. Fifteen tiled arches support the ceiling along with three panels of glass skylights. Rich tones of red brick, green and cream tiles contrast with the blue glass in the skylights, resulting in a stunning visual and architectural feat.

7. The Reason City Hall Subway Station is No Longer in Use

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The City Hall Subway station is located just 600 feet south of the current Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station where the 4/5/6 and J/M/Z trains operate from. The station is 400 feet long along a curve without any straight lines of sight. The original City Hall subway station was closed in 1945 because its curved platform wasn’t able to accommodate the IRT’s newer, longer cars without extensive renovation. Today, the station is used as a turnaround for the 6 trains after they terminate at the Brooklyn Bridge stop.

6. One Exit in City Hall Subway Station Led to the Woolworth Building

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When you get to the mezzanine level inside the City Hall subway station, there is one arched exit that’s now closed off. This once opened into a tunnel that would take transit goers to the basement of the Woolworth Building, one of the amenities offered to prospective office renters. The bike room of the Woolworth Building today is where these subway access tunnels began and you can still see their (closed) doors.

According to Woolworth Building tour guide Jason Crowley, the above red doors once led to a “passageway under Broadway to the BMT and IRT subways. The BMT is now the City Hall R stop and the IRT is the now closed off City Hall stop where the 6 turns around. That passageway was completely filled in under Broadway and no longer exists.”

A former subway entrance inside the Woolworth Building

Join us for our next tour of the Woolworth Building to see not only this lower level, but the vault, main lobby and mezzanine:

VIP Tour of the Woolworth Building

5. The Skylights in the City Hall Subway Station Were Tarred Over During World War II

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As a safety measure, the skylights of many structures in New York City were tarred over during World War II including the original Pennsylvania Station, the Ansonia Hotel and more. The City Hall Subway Station, though underground, was no exception. Today, some pieces of the skylights are missing while others still show remnants of the tarring.

4. Three Ways to See the Old City Hall Subway Station

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The official way to visit the old City Hall subway station is to join the New York Transit Museum and get on the tours they run there twice a year. Tickets usually sell out in about an hour so you need to be on top of your game.

Alternatively, you can stay on the 6 train and ride through the turnaround as the train shifts from downtown to uptown. If the lights are on in the station.

3. There Was Once an Oak Ticket Booth inside the City Hall Subway Station

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A mezzanine area above the platform once showcased an ornamented oak ticket booth which no longer exists. The mezzanine also features a vaulted ceiling crowned by a leaded glass skylight. Today, the space looks like this:

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2. The Commemorative Plaques Inside the City Hall Subway Station

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Three commemorative plaques are placed in arched openings in the subway station, opposite side the platform. They name the directors and engineers of the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Co., founded by August Belmont to fund the IRT. The curved plaque celebrates the construction of the first subway, and a third lists the staff of the chief engineer.

1. A Replica City Hall Subway Station Was Built for the Show Persons of Interest

In the episode “Nautilus” in Season 4 of the CBS television show Person of Interest, a station that looked similar to the City Hall subway station appeared as the headquarters of the team. The green and white tiling was similar but the vaulting was lower (more akin to the Oyster Bar) and the tiled subway sign said IRT instead of “City Hall.” Yet, it was so accurate in detailing from the time period we reached out to the Museum of the City of New York, which was running the exhibit “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile,” at the time. The museum confirmed it was a “faux-Guastavino,” and this article details the construction of a station inspired by City Hall on a 4,000 square foot set.
Watch the episode here – the station appears in the last four minutes.

Bonus: There Were Wooden Inspection Trains Before the Official Opening

Earlier in 1904 there were inspection tours of the New York City on wooden cars. Both photographs above were taken in 1904, the left an IRT inspection tour with Mayor McClellan in the center foreground and contractor John B. McDonald at edge of platform. On the right is an inspection tour for New York City officials.

Join us on our next tour of the NYC Subway System’s Past, Present and Future which include an exploration of another subway station built as “downtown’s Grand Central,”:

Underground Tour of the NYC Subway

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