Every few years, the existence of abandoned subway stations becomes front-page news that somehow sweeps the nation. With the onslaught of attention paid to the Underbelly Project in the South 4th Street shell, it was only a matter of time before reporters decided to revive their old stories on dead subway stations. Even though Transit has been allowing customers to ride the City Hall loop on the 6 train since early 2007, Huffington Post, Jalopnik, Fast Company and Yahoo! News decided to splash this story across their respective front pages last week. Their coverage echoes that found in an Associated Press story from 1984.
I can certainly appreciate the fascination with which those unfamiliar with the intimate details of the New York City subway system treat abandoned stations. The City Hall stop, in particular, has been exceptionally well-restored and maintained, and it’s timelessness and emptiness serve as a window into an era of city planning lost to today’s utilitarian approach. Still, it is a crown jewel with a very public history and one that shows how planning needs change as time wears on.
In the beginning, the City Hall stop was indeed the so-called crown jewel of the nascent subway system. Designed by Rafael Guastavino and Heins & LaFarge, the station served as the launching point for construction for subway construction in 1900 as then-Mayor Robert Van Wyck celebrated the groundbreaking. Four years later, Mayor George McClellan would usher in the age of public transportation as he helmed the first northbound IRT train to depart from the City Hall loop.
Early on, though, it became clear that the City Hall station was a showy redundancy. A few hundred feet from the Brooklyn Bridge station, the loop stop featured a wide gap in between the train car edge and the platform, and once the city extended the lengths of its train cars and subway stations, the City Hall stop became entirely unnecessary. By 1945, the station was closed at night and served just a few hundred paying customers a day. To conserve resources and make better use of the park above, the city closed the station at 9 p.m. on December 31, 1945. (Of historical note at the station today are the remains of the skylights that once let in natural light. While many of the windows of the arches have since blown out, some that remain have retained scraps of blackout paint used during World War II to hide the station from spying eyes.)
As early as 1965, the Transit Authority considered using the City Hall stop as a museum. “The station is unique, and to convert it into a museum is in the tradition of preserving the historic landmarks of our city,” TA Commissioner Joseph O’Grady said. Eventually, the TA chose the IND Court St. station instead. The authority did not want to construct a new loop for the Lexington Ave. local trains and could not store old BMT and IND train cars on the City Hall loop due to the varying car widths.
But the museum idea was one that would not die. In 1987, two letters to the editor published in The Times urged the city to reopen the station as a museum. The city’s “showcase station,” said one writer, “deserves a broader patronage.” Said another “The City Hall station was designed as the highlight of the IRT line. Its fine artwork can and should be preserved, and opened to public view. This would be a fitting commemoration of the men who built the subway, a reminder of how much New York history lies buried beneath the streets.”
In 1995, the idea finally seemed to gain fiscal traction and political support. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani gave the project his thumbs up as a tourist destination, and the MTA secured $750,000 in federal funds to make the museum a reality. At the time, the authority hoped to raise $2.4 million in private donations and kick in another $350,000 for the museum. The Transit Museum planned to restore the oak token booths and construct a glass partition to dull the screeching sound of the 6 as it looped through the curved station.
By 1997, the Transit Museum still hoped to open the station as a museum by the following, but the price tag had risen to $10 million. Museum officials were predicting upwards of 200,000 visitors annually, but while the tours were ongoing, no firm plans to start construction emerged.
Two years later, Mayor Giuliani quashed the museum over alleged security concerns. Because federal terrorism suspects were being held in the nearby courthouse and because the front end of the station is directly under City Hall, the mayor believed a museum underneath his office presented a potential target. “There would be significant security concerns about creating public access to an area that is literally underneath City Hall,” Edward Skylar, a Giuliani spokesman, said.
Both the MTA and Public Advocate disagreed. “It’s ridiculous to think that if a terrorist had a bomb he couldn’t do just as much damage from another spot near City Hall,” one MTA official said, “It would be safer for people in City Hall if there were people coming and going from the old station because crowds tend to deter terrorists.”
“That station went through two world wars,” Joe Rappaport, then-Public Advocate Mark Green’s transportation adviser, said. “There is no reason now that it can’t be reopened to visitors.”
Giuliani won that battle, but the MTA spent $2 million to shore up the station anyway. The structure, not very deep underground, had to be shored up to ensure that trains could still pass through the arches, and in doing so, the MTA allowed the Transit Museum to lead tours for members interested in stepping foot in this abandoned station.
Today, we still debate the potential uses for abandoned stations. These former public spaces lie empty and neglected as various groups have proposed using them for restaurants, art galleries, shopping areas or even just officially-sanctioned memorials to another era. Sometimes a group of street artists come along to turn a forgotten station into a front-page art gallery, and other times, concerns about terrorism — overwrought or not — work to deprive a city of ready access to a beautiful abandoned subway stop.