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.
On Memorial Day Weekend 2013, we had the chance to go on one of the many neighborhood walking tours conducted by the NYC Tenement Museum. It was a cold and sporadically rainy day, but that didn’t stop every tour that day from selling out — something I gather is the case pretty much every weekend, so if you want to go on one, book ahead. We chose The Lower East Side: Then and Now, which focused on the ways in which the architecture and ethnic make-up of the neighborhood has changed over the years. It was a fantastic walk despite the weather, and well worth the price of admission.
It was a gorgeous day today, so it seemed a good opportunity to take the camera out on my lunch break and snap a few shots of the gargoyles hanging out around my office at Astor Place in Manhattan. So I wandered up and down Lafayette and Broadway between Great Jones and the south end of Union Square to see what I could find.
New York’s subway stations are adorned with many an odd historical curio, image, mural, or hidden wonder. One of the first ones I ever noticed and thought to wonder about was the beavers diligently gnawing away at branches throughout the Astor Place 6 train station. These furry little devils probably represent the point at which I decided not just to live, work, and play in New York, but also to poke around in its history — the stranger and more obscure, the better — and eventually become one of those weird old guys who wanders around with a pair of binoculars, offering tourism tips and trivia to random passersby who probably just want to get their picture taken with one of those ratty-looking Times Square Elmos. Anyway, despite being a relatively small (and these days, frequently shut down for weekend construction) station, Astor Place packs a lot of people in every day thanks to its East Village location. It also manages to pack a substantial amount of oddball history onto its modest platform, history that includes the richest man in America, an abandoned passage, a deadly riot, and yes — beavers.
As we mentioned in the article about the secret train platform beneath Grand Central Terminal, the venerable New York City landmark turned one hundred this month. The anniversary is being marked by a number of events, sales, displays, and tours that unfortunately were already sold out by the time I learned about them. Still, not one to be deterred, a crew of us dropped in for the birthday celebration and sought out our own Grand Central sights and curiosities. I’ve poked through the station numerous times yet still managed to find some things I’d never seen before.
Happy 100, Grand Central. The clock above the information booth has an opal face and is worth somewhere around $10-15 million, though rumor has it that the one on display is a replica. There is also a tiny cylindrical tube inside the booth. It contains a stairwell that leads to an employees’ only area below the floor of the plaza.
Because it is well documented elsewhere, I won’t go into the history of F.W. Woolworth, the Woolworth Building, or the stores to which the old man lent his name. For that, I urge you to check out the fantastic Woolworth Building episode of the Bowery Boys podcast. With that history thusly filed away, we can pick up our merry frolic through one of the city’s most iconic yet rarely seen first skyscraper. I say rarely seen because although you can marvel at the impressive exterior, the historic neo-Gothic lobby is off-limits to tourists, gawkers, amateur historians, and anyone who doesn’t work at a company housed in the building. It might be possible to get a glimpse if you wander in just after regular business hours and are really kind to the guard at the front desk, but barring that gamble on the mercy of strangers, you will just have to get a job at one of the many businesses that call the impressive building home. Oddly, my employer does have space in the Woolworth Building, but we have no access to the lobby. They don’t want our kind of rabble hanging around in there. But even if you do work in the building, there are still hidden niches and off-limit secrets to which you don’t get access.
In New York City, you have a lot to watch out for as you walk around. This is unfortunate, as the necessity of keeping your eyes on the ground or around you prevents you from seeing the incredibly wealth of architectural curiosities staring at you from above doorways and beneath windows. I decided to organize a little walking tour one fine, chilly day so that we might get some exercise, get out of our usual stomping grounds, and have a chance to seek out some of this city’s gargoyles, demons, dragons, leaf men, and the other stone and terra-cotta creatures that watch over us without us ever knowing. Along the way, we hoped to also stumble upon a few other curiosity and city sights we didn’t expect.