Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. His beat: the unusual, the offbeat, and the off-limits. He particularly loves nooks and crannies of NYC history. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
Most of New York City's subway stations are examples of the triumph of function over form. It's an industrial-strength system that (sometimes) gets the job done really well. But aside from tiled signs with station names and directions, there is little truly architectural about the network's contemporary trappings. However, there was a time when form was very much taken into consideration. That was during the City Beautiful movement around the turn of the last centuryduring which Grand Central Terminal and Washington Square Park's arch were both completed. In the midst of that age, on October 27, 1904, New York City's first subway station opened to the public. At City Hall. Service was discontinued on the last day of 1945, but interested visitors can still ogle its tiles, skylights, and chandeliersand the next chance to do so is this weekend.
Its architects were George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, the men responsible for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Also working on the both projects were engineers Raphael Guastavino and William Barclay Parsons and sculptor Gutzon Borglum (yes, the man who would be responsible for Mount Rushmore).
In a pamphlet they hand out on the tour, New York Transit Museum calls it the "jewel in the crown." It's a glorious place that made this visitor ask, "Why can't we still have nice things?!" It has arched ceilings and is lit both naturally through several skylights and artificially by electric chandeliers.
It has a single platform and is now part of the loop that 6 trains make going from the Brooklyn Bridge downtown local platform back around to the uptown local platform.
"I like the curved platform space even more than the upstairs mezzanine area," historian John Simko, an expert on the station who led the tour photographed here, told me. "To stand at one end below a beautiful Guastavino vault and to take in the entire length of the curved station without even one column to interrupt the view emphasizes what a unique space it is."
By 1945, though, the nearby Brooklyn Bridge station, with access to both express and local tracks, had become much more popular. So it was shuttered. But we're lucky, for the City Hall station wasn't lost to the ravages of time (unlike the old Penn Station, RIP). It remains preserved, and there's actually ample opportunity to visit it.
Tours are led roughly 16 times a year to groups of about 40 people at a time. To attend, you have to have to be a member of the New York Transit Museum and be ready to act quickly. Tickets for the City Hall station tours cost $40 each and always sell out fast.
The next tour dates are Sunday, February 16, and Saturday, April 12. Both, however, sold out the day they went on sale. There will be a summer tour, but the date for that has not yet been set.
Don't lose hope. There is a (semi)-secret way for you to get a pretty sweet glimpse of the old City Hall station without going through all that. Simply get yourself on a downtown 6 train at the Brooklyn Bridge station and see if your conductor will be kind enough to let you stay aboard as the train passes by the erstwhile stop as it trundles towards the uptown platform.
You'll be able to see a little something if it's a sunny day, but it's best to go on days when tours are scheduled because that's when the chandeliers will be turned on. But if you go on a tour day, don't be in the front car. You might encounter one of the official tours en route and start a row with the paying customers.
· New York Transit Museum [official]
· Photos: An Extremely Rare Tour Inside & Atop The Washington Arch [Gothamist]
· 31 Vintage Photos Of Grand Central During The Last Century [Curbed]
· 50 Years Later, Relive The Destruction Of Old Penn Station [Curbed]