Photographs of the phantom City Hall station capture transit charm of yore.
In his new book, Straphanger, Taras Grescoe writes of an abandoned "ghost station" beneath City Hall in New York. Grescoe gets a privileged tour of the station on a promise not to reveal which train still passes along its tracks to this day. While we applaud Grescoe's journalistic integrity, this particular transit secret isn't much of one: it's rather well known that the downtown local 6 train circles the phantom station after the Brooklyn Bridge stop before emerging at the uptown platform.
The forgotten City Hall station was the original terminal of New York's subway system. It opened on the evening of October 27, 1904, along with 27 other Interborough Rapid Transit (I.R.T.) stations up to 145th Street on the west side. The inauguration began with a private ride conducted by Mayor George McClellan and ended with a fascinated public standing in awe of the strange new technology. Here's Clifton Hood's description from his 1993 book 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York (via Forgotten NY):
The night took on a carnival atmosphere, like New Year’s Eve. Many couples celebrated in style by putting on their best clothes, going out to dinner, and then taking their first subway ride together. Some people spent the entire evening on the trains, going back and forth from 145th Street to City Hall for hours. Reveling in the sheer novelty of the underground, these riders wanted to soak up its unfamiliar sights and sensations for as long as possible. In a few instances high-spirited boys and girls took over part of a car and began singing songs, flirting, and fooling around. The sheer exuberance of opening night proved to be too much for others; although they bought their green IRT tickets and entered the stations like everyone else, these timid passengers were so overwhelmed by their new surroundings that they did not even attempt to board a train. All they could do was stand on the platform and gawk.
Even in its day the City Hall station stood out as unique. Tickets were purchased from an oak ticket booth on a mezzanine level above the platform. Glass skylights let sunshine onto the platform during the day, and wrought-iron chandeliers lighted it at night. The walls of the station were decorated with tall beige and emerald tiles. The train passed beneath arched ceilings designed by curve-loving architect Rafael Gustavino.
The track itself looped at a radius of roughly 147 feet beneath the express tracks to the uptown platform of the Brooklyn Bridge station. Ultimately this distinctive curve proved the City Hall station's undoing. By mid-century, as it became apparent the system needed longer trains to keep up with ridership, officials realized the City Hall platform wouldn't accommodate them without being lengthened. Given the difficulty of this reconstruction — as well as the low station traffic of only 600 passengers a day — the city retired the station at the end of 1945.
These days the best way to see the City Hall station in person is to stay on the downtown 6 as it loops toward the uptown platform after its final stop. If you don't live near the east side of Manhattan, or lack the access of Grescoe, or simply prefer not to move from wherever you are right now, we've posted several pictures of the station below — courtesy of photographers John-Paul Palescandolo and Eric Kazmirek — in all their ghostly glory.
All images courtesy of John-Paul Palescandolo & Eric Kazmirek. (Prints are available for purchase through their site, The Fine Art Photo.)