Monday, June 13, 2011

Old City Hall Station Tour: City Hall and Chambers Street

As some of you may know, I love history.  Is that right?  Well, no, actually I love learning new things, and there is a lot I don't know about history so I love places that are historical.  A few weeks ago I went to the MTA Museum and learned about the history of the NYC public transportation system, and yesterday I went on a special tour of the old abandoned City Hall subway station.

At one time the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) was the private operator of the original underground NYC subway line that opened in 1904, as well as earlier elevated rail lines in NYC. The first IRT lines (the numbered lines in the current subway system were the IRT lines)  ran between City Hall and 145th street along Broadway after 20 years of public debate on the merits of the subways versus the elevated rails and various routes.

Once this subway system was completed, they decked the City Hall station out with chandeliers, ornately carved wooden ticket counters, beautifully crafted Guastavino tiles (like those at the NY Federal Reserve and at the lower level of Grand Central in front of the famous Oyster Bar), and decorative leaded skylights (see above right and left).  The legendary City Hall station was built in an era when government was proud to bring opulence to its public spaces. The station was meant to symbolize how important city officials felt the subway would be to New York’s ongoing development.

The success of the subway system ultimately led to the station's demise. Car sizes and train sizes were increased to handle the growing passenger loads, and this station's tight radius (the tightest of any station in the system) to loop around and head back north made this station obsolete.   The station could not handle the longer cars as the gap between the platform and the train was so large and the platform was also not long enough to handle the additional cars. So on December 31, 1945 it was officially closed. Everything combustible (like the wooden ticket counters) were removed and the entrances to the station were sealed shut although the station lighting remained turned on.

If you stay on the #6 train through the south loop after the Brooklyn Bridge stop, you can catch a passing glimpse of the station, but if you want to really experience the station's history and beauty up close, you can become a member of the MTA Museum and go on one of their twice-yearly tours, called "The Jewel In The Crown: Old City Hall Station" ($30/adults; $20/children).  A New York historian (Joe, pictured at left in the safety vest speaking with tour attendees) provides interesting background and shares his love of NYC.  Check out their website (MTA Programs) and be persistent when trying to call to make reservations -- I had to leave half a dozen voicemail messages and chase the program coordinator, Luce, through her supervisors via email).

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