Under the parking lot and gardens in front of New York’s City Hall is one of the most arresting underground railway stations you’re ever likely not to have seen.
Abandoned underground stations exert an extraordinary attraction. Tours of closed London Underground stations are often sold out just hours after tickets go on sale. While much of the remains of those stations are intact, the platforms themselves have often been removed. Not so at City Hall, or City Hall Loop station as it was sometimes called to avoid confusion with other City Hall stations on the New York City Subway. It looks as though it could reopen tomorrow. It’s been closed for 70 years but if you were to flick the switch to turn on the lights the station would look ready for business.
It would be quite some business too. The station retains its original chandeliers, and the whole thing is clad in beautiful tiles, and adorned with large commemorative plaques. It was a suitably dramatic southern terminus for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s Manhattan main line (the first underground line in what would become the New York City Subway), and a chance for the IRT to show off its product in a highly politically advantageous location, at the feet of the city authorities who were awarding the rights to build such lines. I suppose it’s a bit like the fact that St James’s Park station on the London Underground is always in tip-top condition because the headquarters of London Underground are directly above, for now anyway. City Hall is certainly unlike any other station on the Subway, a Beaux Arts beauty that was quite deliberately intended to be admired.
It takes an unusual form, too, with transverse barrel vaults following the tight curve of the loop line on which the station is built. Like most New York City Subway stations, City Hall is sub-surface rather than deep under ground like London’s tube stations. It was shallow enough to be partly lit by exquisitely detailed leaded skylights, the surface elements of which are still in place outside City Hall if you know what you’re looking for.
It’s not a large station. Built on an end-of-line loop, it has only a single platform. From there, a short staircase leads up to a domed intermediate concourse. From that concourse, two sets of stairs originally ran up to entrances either side of the street above. Those entrances used to be protected by long-vanished pagoda-like structures (you can see one on this page). There’s only one entrance left now, and it’s an emergency exit point protected by large doors, generally kept closed (see it here).
In the early days of underground metros, loop stations at the end of the line were quite common (there’s an abandoned Northern line loop under the Thames in London, for instance). They seem to offer several advantages, not the least of which is that there is no need for the driver of a train at the end of its route to swap ends; he or she simply carries on driving the train around the loop and a southbound train becomes northbound (or vice-versa, or east/west – you get the idea). However, in practice they have several disadvantages. Platforms on loop lines tend to be sharply curved, meaning that doors towards the middle of carriages have a significant gap to platform, and the capacity of a loop line station is less than that of a two-platform terminus, despite the need for a driver to change ends to drive a train back out again.
Opened in 1904, City Hall station, for all its splendour, was never well used. The rapid expansion of the subway meant that before long the nearby City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge station allowed access to a greater number of Subway services, including express trains (a map showing the arrangement of the two stations can be found here). On the other side of City Hall (the building, not the station), another City Hall station opened in 1918, serving yet other destinations. Short platforms also counted against City Hall Loop station, because the longer trains needed to serve rising passenger numbers could not be accommodated. In 1945, rather than spend substantial sums of money rectifying its operational problems, the City of New York closed the station to passengers.
There’s something naggingly familiar about City Hall station’s decorative scheme. It is clad in Guastavino tiles, named after Rafael Guastavino, the inventor or perhaps more accurately commercialiser, of a process of building vaults out of layers of interlocking tiles and Portland cement. The resulting structures are both extremely strong, yet extremely thin and lightweight. Clad in a final layer of glazed ceramic tiles, these structures can be found in several other railway stations. In particular, City Hall station feels very like the oyster bar in the lower levels of Grand Central Terminal, a few blocks to the north.
City Hall station’s architects were Heins and La Farge, designers of the rest of the Manhattan main line, but you’ll also see Guastavino credited too, as his process is so intrinsic to the final appearance of the station.
Whether or not you can currently see City Hall station depends on interpretation as to whether the loop line on which it is located is actually open to passengers or not, even though the station definitely isn’t. Local newspaper The Village Voice reported in 2014 on one unfortunate pair of passengers who decided to stay on their subway train as it trundled round the City Hall loop line and got a fine for their troubles, only for the fine to be cancelled when the Subway’s operator realised it should never have tried to prosecute them in the first place, because the track was open for public use. Given the understandable sensitivities of security in New York these days, and given that staying on a Subway train while it goes round a turning track looks a bit odd, you might be better advised to book onto one of the New York Transit Museum’s ever-popular tours of the station. However you do have to be a museum member, and undergo a background security check, so I’m not sure how practical this would be for a non-US resident.
City Hall station is regularly featured in “Top 10”-style lists of the world’s most attractive underground railway stations (this one, for instance). That only makes it all the more frustrating that it’s so difficult to get to. Or, as 26th President of the United States of America Theodore Roosevelt would say, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”
Bibliography and Further Reading
Anything linked to in the text above.
How to find City Hall station
Click this link for The Beauty of Transport‘s map – you can’t generally go there, but this is where it is.