The Jewel in the Subway Crown

9 Mar

The New York City Subway isn’t quite as old as London’s Tube. In fact, it isn’t even the oldest in the Americas – that distinction goes to Boston. But when it did open, over a century ago, it was a momentous occasion. One that would change the course of the city’s development, and give it the very pulse it’s known for today. The year was 1904. The 27th of October was the chosen date, and the station where it all began – City Hall, in lower Manhattan.

On the last weekend of February, I had the rare privilege to tour City Hall Station – the very birthplace of New York’s Subway – a station that has been lying abandoned since 1945. Here are a few chosen images and accompanying descriptions from my visit.

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We gather at the front end of the downtown platforms at Brooklyn Bridge Station. After checking in, we file into the first car of a terminating #6 train, which has just offloaded the last of its fare-paying passengers. Traveling some 600-feet around a sharp curve, we alight minutes later by the grand entrance that leads to the mezzanine level of City Hall Station.

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Tour guide John Simko leads us in to what was once the fare control area for the station; where passengers entered and exited from, and where an elegant oak paneled ticket booth held centre stage. He proceeds to describe the events of the opening day, as we listen in rapt attention. Above us, and all around, we take in the stellar work of Rafael Guastavino.

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It has been 68 long years since a passenger boarded a train from here, but the trains themselves haven’t stopped plying. Except, they don’t halt here anymore!  Tours of the abandoned station are run by the New York Transit Museum about twice a year, open only to museum members. For anyone else wishing to catch a glimpse of the old station, your best bet is to remain onboard a “looping” #6 train. On the platform below us, an MTA employee waves to the knowledgeable few who’ve stayed on…

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The loop, or “balloon loop” as it’s referred to correctly, enables #6 trains to be turned around. Consulting architects Heins & LaFarge had envisioned building the station into the curve of the loop, practically at the doorstep of City Hall! They hired the Valencia-born Gustavino for the job, and his resultant work, remains to this day, a true homage to the curve. Without so much as a single straight line of sight, the station has been aptly described by some as “an apotheosis of curves”!

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Of the 15 vaulted arches that straddle the curved platform, the middle arch meets the opening to the mezzanine, which in turn defines the very centre of the station. The arches are made up of coloured ceramic tiles, with glossy cream and green ones forming the ribs, and a herringbone pattern of brown tiles in between. The wainscoting below is composed of Roman bricks. This “tile arch system” was patented by the Valencian architect in the late 19th-century, and over time, came to be known as “Gustavino tile”.

Three of the arches have magnificent leaded skylights built into them, the central one bearing a large decorative bronze plaque, commemorating the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit or IRT – the city’s first subway line.

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Skylights provided illumination by day, and ornate brass chandeliers provided electric lighting by night. The skylights were eventually tarred over to protect against air raids in World War II. Having gone all but dark since, it is the passage of the #6 train that illuminates the station’s many striking features, and yet, contrasts sharply with everything around…

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With the growing popularity of the adjoining Brooklyn Bridge Station – one that served both local and express trains – City Hall’s patronage diminished over time, and the introduction of longer, newer subway cars in the 40’s eventually spelt its death knell.

As the tour comes to an end, the organisers flag down another “looping” #6 train. Our group is led into the first car once again. As we utilise a plank to traverse it safely, the gap between the platform and train is more than evident…

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Next stop for me – Grand by Design, an exhibit commemorating 100 years of Grand Central Station. And the #6 train will get me there too! Unlike the tour though, this one is free and open to all 😉

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A full set of pics from the tour can be seen here.

For those of you interested, here is a diagram depicting the layout of the station and loop, which helps contextualise it all.

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One Response to “The Jewel in the Subway Crown”

  1. Frederick H Claflin October 6, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Good information on the tour, love to do it some time….did they allow tripods to photograph in the low light?

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