Did you know that the first subway rolled out of Lower Manhattan 100 years ago, from City Hall?
Vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, skylights, and polished Guastavino tiles have never been standard décor in New York City's subway stations, which is why the original City Hall station stands out as one of the most celebrated -- and legendary -- in today's system.
The station was the starting point of the first Interborough Rapid Transit subway ride on October 27, 1904. On that day, Mayor George McClellan ceremoniously took the helm of the train (alongside official IRT motormen) and powered through nine miles of track. Back then, the nickel fare took riders along what is now the No. 6 line, turned west at Grand Central onto today's Shuttle line, then north at Times Square on the 1/2/3/9 line and up to 145th Street in Harlem.
Located just southwest of the City Hall building, the station is home to sharply curved tracks that accommodate a five-car train -- both reasons for the station's closing in 1945, when riders were more likely to catch a train from the nearby Brooklyn Bridge local and express stop.
The vintage City Hall station was designed by George Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, the original subway station designers who left their mark on many of the first stations. Some of their finer touches can be seen at the Fulton Street station, where terra cotta tiles of Robert Fulton's steamship adorn the walls of the Lexington-line platform, as well as at that line's cast-iron entrance at Wall Street and Broadway.
Re-opened for one day for the subway centennial celebration, the City Hall station is an example of old-world craftsmanship and grand architecture. Heins and LaFarge, charged with making the station stand out among what would eventually grow to 468 stations citywide, designed the space as a showpiece. Their work remains extraordinary, including details like high-arched ceilings and entryways, gleaming green-and-tan tiles, and wrought-iron chandeliers that set off the vaulted skylights of amethyst glass.
When the station closed in December 1945, it became a time capsule of turn-of-the-century architecture design. The structure was sealed off in almost pristine original condition, including the wooden token booth where riders bought paper tickets that they then inserted into a ticket chopper box before descending to the platform. (The station was never outfitted with turnstiles.)
Throughout the decades, the old City Hall station was reopened for public tours until it finally closed for good in 1998 for security purposes. Today, only No. 6-train subway motormen glimpse the grandeur of the station on a regular basis, as they loop around from the Brooklyn Bridge station to restart the route.
With the station recently cleaned and polished for the centennial, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and some subway advocacy groups, including the Straphangers Campaign, have tossed around the idea of converting the old City Hall station into a transit museum in Lower Manhattan.
"Turning the City Hall station into a museum is a good idea," said Gene Russianoff, spokesperson for Straphangers. "It would be another cultural attraction, and it would be very appropriate for downtown. After all, Lower Manhattan is where the subway started and what helped build downtown."
* Photos courtesy of the New York Transit Museum