If you’re a fan of subways, transit or train stations, a destination that should be on your bucket list is the original City Hall Station in New York City. This is one of the original subway stations built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and is part of today’s Lexington Avenue #6 line. You can pass through the station on a train with a “insider’s” tip, but the only way to get on the platform is by a tour with the NYC Transit Museum.
Tours are organized by the museum about a half-dozen times a year and due to their scarcity are “hot tickets” to get. First, you have to be a member of the museum to be eligible to buy one, and then it’s first come, first served on their website the day tickets are released. Securing one feels like getting a hot rock concert or Broadway theater ticket. My ticket wasn’t official until I had sent back a signed waiver as well as a background check release form. I don’t know if this is standard on all tours, but this tour is underground near the active and public NY City Hall building so I could understand the security concerns of our present world.
I bought my ticket this past December for an April 7th tour. Anticipating my tour for weeks prior, I had to wait for an email sent to me a few days prior to the date in order to know where and when to report. At a location near city hall, I met my tour guides, who checked my ID, signed me in and provided me with a wireless receiver to listen to the guide’s narration.
The tour narrator was Polly Desjarlais, Education Assistant for the New York Transit Museum. Not only did she present the tour in an engaging and interesting manner, but she had a lovely voice as she is originally from England and that was important as she would be the voice in my ear for about 90 minutes. She assembled our group of about 25 people and moved us to a location on Broadway to start the narration. While I came primarily for the photographic opportunities, her knowledge of the subway system and the city hall area history was extremely engaging.
This station was one of the original 20 stations that comprised the first true subway line in New York and as the southern terminus station near city hall was designed to be a showpiece. On opening day, October 7, 1904, the trains rolled north from City Hall and south from 145th Street, the northern terminus station at the time. Over time the need for rider capacity grew, train lengths grew and the original City Hall Station became obsolete. With no room to expand the platform to accommodate longer train lengths, the station was closed in 1945 and hasn’t hosted a rider since.
After guiding us above ground, we went down the Brooklyn Bridge subway entrance and onto the platform of the #6 train, which would be our conveyer to the City Hall Station. With the City Hall Station no longer being the endpoint of the #6 line, the train turns on a balloon loop south of Brooklyn Bridge which positions the train across the Brooklyn Bridge platform for the uptown trip. It is on this return loop, that the abandoned City Hall Station is located. Our hosts talked to the crew of an incoming train and instructed them to open the doors of the first car and let our group in. With us aboard and full of anticipation, the train proceeded slowly and loudly into the loop as the tight radius curves were meant for the shorter cars of 100 years ago. The wheel squeak provided an auditory sensation that you normally don’t get from riding the subway and not only increased my nervous excitement, but reinforced the sensation of going somewhere unique and privileged. As our view from the window went from dark wall to the lit openness of the platform, smiles came to our faces as we were finally here. The train crew aligned the front-most door with a temporary gap spanner and opened the doors of the first car and let us out into our prized destination.
Stepping onto the platform of this ghost station, I felt like an archeologist entering an ancient tomb or ruin. The first thing I noticed was that the platform lighting, which was heralded in it’s day as a bright innovation, is very dim by today’s public space standards. This station, which was designed around 1900, doesn’t look or feel like any place that I associate as a subway station with a vaulted design in the Romanesque Revival style that is purely decorative, but contributes greatly to the experience of stepping back into a forgotten relic.
As a photographer, I found the space beautiful to look at and the available light inspiring to work with. It’s the environmental space itself that is interesting as there are very few objects within the space, but that suited me just fine, as that is where my photographic interests lie. The double restrictions of a time limit (about 30 minutes) and allowed equipment (no tripods or stands) challenged me as I expected they would. Knowing that I would have to handhold my camera, meant that I would bring my Canon 24-105 L lens, instead of my preferred Tokina 24-70 Pro lens, as it has superb image stabilization and I have gotten good, sharp images down to a ¼ second from it. Exploring a few ideas, I do wish that I had time more time to retry a few concepts and I might just have to go back again to perfect them.
Expectations and anticipation can at times let you down after you finally realize a quest, but in this case they were met and dare I say, exceeded. I enjoyed the organized aspect of the tour, something I usually despise, but the passion and excitement of the hosts was contagious. The City Hall station space itself is truly beautiful and challenged me photographically, so much so that I want to go back and try and push what I can do creatively.
Insiders Tip Without a tour, it is still possible to get a look at the station from inside the train windows. To do so, you can simply stay on the downtown #6 train as it leaves Brooklyn Bridge Station and moves through the balloon loop to reposition itself for the uptown trip. At Brooklyn Bridge, the conductor will announce that this is the last stop, but you don’t have to leave the train. Stay on the train and move to the right side of the car in the direction the train is moving and you can get a peek at the station too. The platform lights will be off, but some of the open vaults allow daylight (midday offers the best light) through and you will be able to see this treasure that hasn’t hosted passengers in 71 years.