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.
Despite living in New York for some fifteen years now, and despite the iconic nature of this particular attraction, I had never been on — nor indeed even seen — the Roosevelt Island Tram. Somehow, despite countless trips up and down the FDR Drive and occasional trips back and forth across the Queensboro Bridge, I never once caught a glimpse of that bright red skytram being tugged across the East River on suspended cables. It could possibly be because I was, you know, driving, and if you’ve ever been in that particular part of town you know that it does not usually work out very well to distract oneself from the road. Eventually though, and probably after staying up late watching Nighthawks yet again, it was determined that enough was enough. High time to get suspended high above the river en route to a river island about which I know very little and which is visited rarely by anyone who does not live there.
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.
2013 marks the centennial anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. We’ll be writing plenty about the storied train station in the coming weeks and months, but I thought we’d kick off the celebration with one of our favorite weird facts about the place. Behind a nondescript, locked and ignored brass door set into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 49th Street is an elevator to a secret Grand Central train platform that was used by President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited the city and did not want to deal with reporters and photographers. That door is about as close as you or me or most of the rest of the public is ever going to get to the secret station, dubbed simply Track 61 by Grand Central authorities, but behind that door and below the street is a wealth of fascinating history that includes not just Roosevelt’s secret train, but also a lavish underground party thrown by Andy Warhol.