Random Frolics: Beneath City Hall

This past weekend offered a rare respite from our recent rainy weather. And speaking of rare, we got the rare opportunity to visit one of the jewels of off-limits subway lore: the abandoned City Hall station in Lower Manhattan. The station was the first station on New York’s brand new subway line. As such, it was designed to be particularly showy. Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the station opened on October 27, 1904 as the southern terminus of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). It boasted Guastavino tile, skylights, stained glass, and brass chandeliers. Unfortunately some years later, transit passengers began to favor the much larger, nearby Brooklyn Bridge station. Because the City Hall station was built as a loop, it could not be easily expanded to compensate for larger crowds or extended to serve Brooklyn. And the curved track left a precarious gap between the train and the platform. Use of the station declined, until it was finally closed on December 31, 1945.

After brunch at nearby Landmarc (pancakes and bellinis…a perfect start to any day), we headed underground for the tour. The Transit Museum offers occasional tours of the old station, and despite the grime, modern safety signage, and piles of stored materials, it’s still an impressive site that lets you get a taste, albeit a sooty one, of the grandeur of the subway system when it first opened. If you don’t want to or can’t go on a tour, you can still get a glimpse of the station. Take the downtown 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall, the last stop on the line, then stay on the train. When it leaves, it goes through the old City Hall station and uses the loop to turn around and head back uptown.

Afterward, with a sunny day at our disposal, we decided to poke around Lower Manhattan — a neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of love but I am fast growing to really appreciate. A number of great bars have opened in the past few years — The Growler, Dead Rabbit, and the place we ate and drank at this day, Vintry — and some of the city’s best pre-war architecture still lurks around the newer glass buildings. Plus you have the old Colonial stuff, the waterfront, and a bunch of tiny, convoluted streets snaking around skyscrapers and making it all feel like some weird part of the city designed by a maze maker.

We wrapped up with visits two two of the neighborhood’s most historic locations — St. Paul’s Chapel (the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan) and Trinity Church, where we intended to pay respects to Alexander Hamilton and John Jacob Astor. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, so we didn’t get to Trinity until after closing time. Thus, I’ll save writing about that for a proper visit. But we still got to see Hamilton. All in all, another great frolic through a neighborhood too many locals dismiss as having little to offer.

6 thoughts on “Random Frolics: Beneath City Hall”

  1. I loved this. Since I’m fascinated by subway secrets and underground railways, it’s right up my street. There was, by the way, a similar Cold War / Abandoned station on the Prague subway A (green) line where the train looped around after Skalka. I was a bit upset to discover that it’s been reactivated as Depo-Hospital.

    But the two I’m really curious about are the constructed-but-never-used Kanazawa subway (the bus companies lobbled it to death) which was supposed to run from Kanazawa station to Korinbo, and the possibly-apocryphal Manchester subway that was abandoned when the exploration diggers dug up…..something (n.b. as much as I would love this to have been an alien spacecraft, I suspect they just tunnelled into the ship canal by mistake. oops.)

    anyways, lovely article. makes me miss New York.

  2. Gorgeous shots! I had no idea you could take a tour through the old City Hall station, definitely putting that one on my to do list. There is always a new reason to go to the city, sadly I never thought to visit the old. Sounds like you had a very fun day!

    Survive Reality, Live the Dream

  3. Regarding: “Take the downtown 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall, the last stop on the line, then stay on the train. When it leaves, it goes through the old City Hall station and uses the loop to turn around and head back uptown.”

    I have heard this before. I tried it a few years ago, but it didn’t go well. I got told off by the driver through the loudspeaker, and saw nothing – just darkness. Can anyone confirm that this really works? I am a bit scared to try again.

  4. While I was in the station, I was watching the trains go by with people in them armed with cameras. But I suspect except when a tour is on, the station is probably pretty dark, so sitting in the first car where you can benefit from the light might help

  5. Thanks! Next time I’m in New York – I don’t live there any more – I will try this in the front car of the train. That idea had never occurred to me!

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