Home Abandoned Stations Making use of abandoned subway stops

Making use of abandoned subway stops

by Benjamin Kabak

In Boston, a team of architects won the SHIFTboston Ideas Competition by re-imagining an abandoned subway station as an underground theater space. (Click to enlarge)

The history of New York City’s subway system is littered with idiosyncratic sites. Amongst stop-and-start construction efforts, origins as three distinct companies and station expansion efforts, the tunnels underground feature their fair shares of hidden mysteries and abandoned stations. What to do with these shuttered stations has been a question long on the minds of urban planners.

For the most, New York’s long-forgotten stations — meticulously documented here by Joseph Brennan and here at NYCSubway.org — are slivers of the past. The station at 91st St. and Broadway whizzes by in the blink of an eye. It, like the ones at 18th St. and Park Ave. South and Worth St., was closed when trains were lengthened and stations were suddenly too close together. Others — such as the abandoned platforms at Canal St. along the BMT Nassau St. line — are remnants of a Manhattan Bridge connection long shuttered. Still others, such as the famous City Hall stop, were beautifully designed stations that were simply impractical for passenger service. Astute straphangers know where to look for glimpses of the past.

In New York City, the city’s approach to these stations has been to simply close them and allow urban decay to take over. Most are overrun with trash and graffiti and serve as shelters for those intrepid or foolish enough to brave a few hundreds yard in an empty subway tunnel. One in Brooklyn is the home of the Masstransiscope, an excellent Arts for Transit installation I profiled last year. Besides the 91st St. station that sits outside my parents’ apartment building, the Masstransiscope is a prime example of an excellent use for an abandoned station.

The Big Apple is not alone in dealing with its neglected stops. In Boston, the subway system also sports hidden secrets of abandoned spurs and empty stations, and recently, a pair of architects have proposed turning the station into a museum and arts complex. As Metropolis Mag’s Mason Currey notes, two designers won the SHIFTboston Ideas Competition with this proposal, and it’s not such a far-fetched one at that.

In fact, we need journey only 13 years in our own city’s history to unveil a similar proposal for the one-time Crown Jewel of the subway system. As Christopher Gray of The Times first reported in April 1997, the Transit Museum was going to open an annex in the City Hall stop. Using $2 million in Federal, city and state funds to renovate the station and prepare it for museum-goers, the Transit Museum had hoped to open the annex by 1998 and were anticipating more than 200,000 visitors per year to the unique space.

Unfortunately, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had other ideas. Despite initially supporting the project when it was first announced in 1995, Giuliani quashed the plans in 1999, citing terrorism concerns over the station’s proximity to City Hall. “The decision was predicated on security considerations,” NYPD spokeswoman Marilyn Mode said at the time. “It’s right under the building.” With two other active subway stations in close proximity to City Hall, it sounded like a questionable excuse ten years ago and remains one today.

In the end, the Transit Museum spent $2 million to shore up the old station, and Museum members can now pay $25 for the unique privilege of attending tours of the old station. Still, as the 6 trains screech under the Guastavino Arches, the City Hall subway stop stands as an empty reminder of a plan that would better utilize an abandoned subway station. Maybe Boston can see fit to develop its unique empty underground spaces, and maybe New York could reconsider sprucing up the lost and forgotten bits of an extensive subway system.

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Jonathan February 11, 2010 - 5:42 pm

Great info. Amazing to see the quality of craftsmanship that went into constructing some of these stations, and how well they’ve held up over the years. Would be nice to see some of these spaces restored and utilized for other functions (theaters, museums, etc.)

Christopher February 11, 2010 - 5:48 pm

In Chicago you can sublease cars for special Loop tour events. (I’ve been to a fashion show on a subway car, but know that performances, and museum galas, and dance events have all used cars.) Something like the City Hall station which IS gorgeous, would be a wonderful for-rent venue.

Rolando Peñate February 11, 2010 - 6:12 pm

The broken link to your Masstransiscope post should point at http://bkabak.wpengine.com/200.....and-shiny/

Benjamin Kabak February 11, 2010 - 6:17 pm

So it should. Fixed that typo. Thanks.

rhywun February 11, 2010 - 7:12 pm

I can picture an afternoon at a City Hall Station Museum being a rather unpleasant experience, with the 6 train screeching through every 5 to 10 minutes….

Russell Warshay February 11, 2010 - 7:44 pm

Now you can also add the old South Ferry station to that list. How about opening it up as a small retail venue of 5 shops, with each one occupying an antique subway car?

Andrew February 11, 2010 - 10:26 pm

The old South Ferry station is still an invaluable link between the East Side and West Side.

Russell Warshay February 12, 2010 - 9:19 am

You sir, are correct!

Andrew February 11, 2010 - 10:32 pm

The Canal Street (Nassau line) closure had nothing to do with the connection to the Manhattan Bridge, which was south of that point. The now-closed platforms at Canal and Bowery were open until 2004, when the through tracks were realigned.

Rick February 12, 2010 - 1:00 am

How about using some of these stations? Essex Street has an abandoned trolley terminal that would be great for cross-East River streetcar or possibly light rail service.

Many accommodations for future service were built into the IND. Some such lines still could be useful. Direct travel between Brooklyn and Queens is pretty limited.

Andrew February 12, 2010 - 6:54 am

The J train already provides service between the exact two points that your proposed streetcar would. As does the B39 bus, which is about to be eliminated.

Rick February 12, 2010 - 2:32 pm

Why would a street car only cross the bridge? There’s a vast swath of densely populated neighborhoods west of Broadway with no direct access to Manhattan by Subway. I was thinking it would do something like service that area and then cross the bridge.

Peter February 12, 2010 - 12:12 pm

OK, here’s the deal, or at least a small part of it, regarding re-use of Ghost Stations….

The MTA Real Estate Dept., which is in charge of making non-operational portions of the systems available for commercial use, seriously investigated making platforms of the unused IRT Stations available to concession operators a number of years ago. First of all, they are SMALL. Platforms are 4-6 cars long, and platform widths at either end are very narrow. Trackside access, for NYCT personnel or for emergency evacuation require that a walkway a few feet wide be maintained, further cutting down on available practical space. Then there are access, HVAC, modern building codes, and especially ADA requirements to be resolved. Bathrooms, storage, and other practicalities make tiny original IRT stations practically impossible to utilize.

There are ways to do so – if the station platforms could be made accessible to the basement of an adjacent building, allowing access, additional space, restrooms, utilities, elevators etc etc. The subway station space could be the marquee attraction, with the necessary other physical requirements located in a more modern adjacent building.

Daunting hurdles would remain: The ghost stations are in TERRIBLE condition; most of the original tile, fixtures & hardware is missing or badly damaged, but these stations are still Landmarks, and would have to be restored to scrupulous recreations of their 1904 selves. Hideously expensive. And don’t expect any financial help from the MTA.

Obviously the point of using the spaces is to have clear sight of the adjacent tunnel, but any fenestrations would have to be designed to make it impossible to actually get to the trackway, but still maintain a walkway on the edge of the tracks while not impeding visibility from the concession area. Both sides of any windows would have to be regularly cleaned, but the trackside surfaces couldn’t opened for cleaning in away that would impede transit operations, so there would have to be lots of tiny little windows that opened inward. And all those windows would get REAL dirty REAL fast.

When this concept was investigated last on the uptown side of 18th St., there was a bank on the first floor of the building with a vault adjacent to the Station. Not so architecturally practical for adaptive re-use.

The highest & best use there would be not so much for a cocktail lounge as for the concept of a caper flick.

Rick February 12, 2010 - 2:34 pm

Well, if there’s still a market for such things, they’d make great bars or night clubs then! Hell, Subways are already loud.

John V February 16, 2010 - 8:39 am

Peter alluded to a proposal from perhaps 10 years ago, to turn the 18th Street IRT station into a restaurant. Lots and lots of impracticalities (dirty windows, emergency exits, NOISE!) and it never went anywhere.

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Meredith February 18, 2011 - 11:43 pm

In Washington DC, the Dupont Circle subway station is very deep underground. The reason for this is that there is another transit station between it and the surface – the old Dupont Circle streetcar station. There have been frequent attempts to turn that station into something useful, and the Dupont Down Under project of the late 1990s was almost successful, convincing a bakery and a fitness center to sign up to lease space. It never really gelled, though, and today Dupont Down Under remains an abandoned station in DC.

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