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City Hall Station – Inside New York’s most stunning subway station, abandoned since 1945

David Goran
The entrance tunnel

The New York City Subway is one of the oldest public transit systems in the world, so it’s no surprise that Manhattan has its fair share of abandoned subway stations.

City Hall was the original southern terminal station of the first line of the New York City Subway, built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), named the “Manhattan Main Line”, and now part of the IRT Lexington Avenue Line. As one of the first stations built on a new underground line, City Hall was designed to be the showpiece of the new subway and it was remarkably elegant in architectural style. The platform and mezzanine feature Guastavino arches and skylights, colored glass tilework, and brass chandeliers. The mezzanine featured a wooden ticket booth and two stairways to the street and the station’s curved entryways and ceilings are some of its most notable design features. There are also no columns on the platform to block your view. An underground marvel of both transportation and elegance.

The official start of construction took place on March 24, 1900, at the front steps of City Hall, at a ceremony officiated by Mayor Robert Van Wyck, the first mayor of New York City.

Arch and Skylight at City Hall Subway Station. Author: Paul Lowry – CC BY-SA 2.0

Arch and Skylight at City Hall Subway Station. Author: Paul Lowry – CC BY-SA 2.0

The subway opened to the public on October 27, 1904. More than 15,000 people have issued passes for the first series of rides from the platform and the price to ride the subway was a mere five cents. The event was so massively attended that every policeman in the city was on duty all day and far into the night. The subway would go from there, to Grand Central, Times Square, and then all the way north to 145th street in the Bronx.

The mezzanine of the old City Hall Station, with its glass oculus. Author: Salim Virji – CC BY-SA 2.0

The mezzanine of the old City Hall Station, with its glass oculus. Author: Salim Virji – CC BY-SA 2.0

Unfortunately, the fascinating City Hall was never an important station and it was closed when the tracks had to be expanded because the curved track was noisy, the gaps it left at the platform were unsafe and it could not be lengthened. It was decided to abandon the station in favor of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge station, which was at the opposite end of City Hall Park and was heavily used and more popular, as it provided both local and express service, including trains to Brooklyn. The nearby Brooklyn Bridge stop was frequented by the express train and closer to connecting streetcars.

A triumph of function over form.

It was abandoned on December 31, 1945, after the introduction of 10-car trains made it impossible to fit an entire set of carriages in the station. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0

It was abandoned on December 31, 1945, after the introduction of 10-car trains made it impossible to fit an entire set of carriages in the station. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0

In its final year, the City Hall station only had a daily count of 600 passengers passing through its regal interior and the final day of service was December 31, 1945. The street entrances were sealed and the skylights covered over.

The portico to the left leads up a set of stairs to the surface. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0

The portico to the left leads up a set of stairs to the surface. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0

Though it’s been closed since 1945, the track on which City Hall Station is located was never demolished. The idea to restore and open the station to the public was proposed back in 1995, with tours ending in 1998 due to security risks and finally beginning again in 2006 through the Transit Museum, allowing visitors to visit an underground wonder that once announced New York’s entry into the new age of transportation.

The three plaques designed by Mount Rushmore-sculptor Gutzon Borglum which commemorate the building of the Interborough Rapid Transit line, of which City Hall Station was the original southern terminus, opening in 1904. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY 2.0

The three plaques designed by Mount Rushmore-sculptor Gutzon Borglum which commemorate the building of the Interborough Rapid Transit line, of which City Hall Station was the original southern terminus, opening in 1904. Author: Julian Dunn – CC BY 2.0

The New York Transit Museum hosts tours of the abandoned station at various times throughout the year. The tour is only available to registered members of the museum require advanced payment and reservations. You even have to pass a background check before you’ll be allowed in.

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So, if you want to experience the City Hall station for yourself, your best chance is to get a Transit Museum membership, which costs between $35 and $50 a year.