From SUMMIT One Vanderbilt to the skyscraper museum in Manhattan, New York City offers its welcomed guests bountiful ways to enjoy its marvelous horizons and learn about its impressive history. Although many of the most popular attractions in NYC are above ground and out in the open air, some major landmarks are a little more unassuming and out of sight. Among the lesser-known historic sites in the Big Apple is one particularly special subway station that still stands — albeit as a ghost of its former self.
That station, echoing stories of the past, was the very first subway station in NYC. First opened on October 27, 1904, the grand, ornate City Hall subway station was the pièce de résistance of the shiny new NYC subway system; it became part of the city’s first subway route and began operating for just over four decades until its closure in 1945.
For tens of years, it wasn’t possible to visit the abandoned station — an underground crypt containing New York City subway history and the very first of its kind. However, today, history hunters and urban Dora the Explorers can witness what was once New York City’s grandest flagship subway station, with its majestic arches, vaulted ceilings, elegant Guastavino and colored glass tiling, opulent brass and wrought iron chandeliers, and intricate skylights — all sleeping peacefully under City Hall Park.
The pristine and beautiful hub interiors where old stories stagnate is among the best-hidden gems in NYC — one that remained in surprisingly good condition over the decades, despite the station’s abandonment and disuse.
The History Of Old City Hall Station In New York City
The Old City Hall Station history is a simple, age-old tale of the city’s ever-evolving needs outgrowing what this subway hub was able to provide. Opening on October 27, 1904, the elaborately decorated station was the first subway in New York City and served as part of the network of trains operating under the urban sprawl.
The train line utilizing this station departed from its namesake City Hall and ventured north to Grand Central Terminal, rode through Times Square, and traveled on up to 145th Street. A simple yet iconic route that connected significant parts of the city commanded a very simple price; the fare to ride the subway was only five cents at the time — a time-worn shadow of today’s rail prices.
Old City Hall Station’s status as the first subway train, along with its important route, wasn’t the sole reason it stood out. In fact, the architectural splendor and interior design truly earned the place a greater mark on the NYC map. Attention to detail in the decor department is seen throughout the intimate station.
Electric brass chandeliers, decorative plaques, intricate skylights, oak furnishings, white terra cotta, and beautiful tiling adorn the interiors, evoking the charm of old-world designs.
Beauty and traditional craftsmanship are seen structurally, too. The station’s architects were George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, who also designed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. They employed numerous extraordinary design elements when piecing the station together; in particular, its lack of straight lines is noticeable.
Instead of conventional lines, the designers used curved entryways and vaulted ceilings, rendering the station visually stunning to the eyes.
The arched ceilings command just as much awe and were designed by the Gustavinos — a family that revolutionized architecture at the time with their patented vaulted tile ceiling techniques.
Incredibly, their works exist in more than 1,000 spaces across the United States, including 300 in New York City alone — one of which is the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal.
Why Did The Old City Hall Station Close?
Though Old City Hall Subway Station served the city well for forty years, needs had changed. By the 1940s, the station failed to keep pace with the volume of passengers traveling along its lines, leading to the larger adjacent Brooklyn Bridge subway station gaining more popularity — especially among ‘straphangers’.
City Hall’s old station was small and charming; however, it couldn’t beat Brooklyn Bridge’s station — the latter whose platform could hold significantly more commuters and accommodate much longer trains. As quantity became more important than quality, City Hall Station passenger numbers fell, leading to its closure on December 31, 1945.
The station’s life transporting the public may have come to an end, but it rightfully received interior landmark status in 1979 in recognition of its beauty and significance to the history and heritage of New York City.
How To Visit Old City Hall Station In NYC
There are two ways to visit the Old City Hall Station: on an official paid tour through the New York Transit Museum or alone free of charge from the windows of the 6 train heading downtown. The next sections of this guide will detail both options.
For the best experience, the guided tour option is advised, as the station is illuminated for paying guests while expert guides detail the history of the site.
However, these guided tours are only available for New York Transit Museum members to purchase. Tickets for the tour cost $50 per person and often sell out very quickly.
The New York Transit Museum Old City Hall Station Tour
New York Transit Museum Old City Hall Station tours commence above ground and start with a leisurely historical walking tour of the area. After this initial exploration, tour participants are taken to the Old City Hall Station for an insider’s look.
The tour lasts around 90 minutes and takes place no matter the weather. It also requires plenty of standing, walking, and stairs, so it may not be the best NYC tour for wheelchair users, people pushing strollers, and those with physical limitations.
There are also no restrooms on the tour, meaning guests are advised to go to the bathroom before the trip begins.
Guests are welcome to bring cameras and take photographs (especially since this part of the Big Apple features some of the best spots to take Instagram pictures in NYC). However, big camera setups with tripods aren’t permitted — only handheld devices.
According to the New York Transit Museum website, in-person guided tours of Old City Hall Station aren’t always available. They only go on sale three times a year, and it’s unclear if and when they will launch, so hopeful tour participants should check the museum’s tour page regularly and look out for any updates.
Where Is The Old City Hall Subway Station?
Old City Hall Station rests under the Municipal Building of Centre Street and Chambers Street intersection. It can be seen right at the end of the 6 train line, which terminates at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Station situated in Lower Manhattan.
The 6 train is bound for downtown, and when it comes back on itself to return uptown, it makes a U-turn loop through the secret and abandoned Old City Hall Station — enabling passengers to get a complimentary look in through the train’s windows.
Despite being referred to as ‘abandoned’, the station does serve as a major part of the subway system — trains still screech along its tracks and head through every eight or so minutes, 24 hours a day.
How To Ride Through Old City Hall Station In New York City
Passengers can visit the NYC Old City Hall Station independently without a guided tour. Although, many people claim it’s a bit of a gray area in terms of whether seeing the abandoned station this way is technically allowed. Still, many passengers do select this option, but they do so discreetly and respectfully.
According to numerous people who’ve done this route, they claim that the staff on board the train do seem to let folks stay on quietly and enjoy the ride through the old station, given its significant historical importance that makes many visitors wish to see it in person.
- Get on the 6 train heading downtown
- The train’s final stop is the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station, where passengers may be told to exit the train. However, to get a glimpse of the abandoned station, they should stay on board
- Stay on the train. When it departs the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station, it passes through the old abandoned City Hall Station. When heading through, passengers can get a look at it, though they are advised to be quiet and respectful.
As the 6 train is a local train, some travelers coming from other parts of the city might be better off hopping on the 4 or 5 express trains to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Station and then getting on the 6 train at that station instead.
What To Know Before Visiting The Old City Hall Station In NYC
- Staying on the 6 train wasn’t always allowed, and it’s not entirely clear if it still is. However, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) doesn’t appear to enforce the ‘rule’ of passengers having to get off at Brooklyn Bridge station. Many passengers say that train conductors seem to ‘ignore’ people who wish to stay on to get a look at the Old City Hall Station. Still, it would be better (and more polite to staff) to ask first if it’s okay to stay on to take a look
- If choosing the ‘visit by oneself’ option on the same day that the New York Transit Museum has a tour taking place, make sure to avoid the first car of the train — that’s for paying tour guests only
- The station isn’t too far from some of the best foodie neighborhoods in NYC, so grabbing some grub afterward is a well-deserved treat!
When Is The Best Time To Visit The Old City Hall Station In NYC?
The best time to visit NYC’s Old City Hall Subway Station is on a clear, bright sunny day when the skylights in the ceilings naturally light up the interiors. Also, for the best possible experience, opting for the New York Transit Museum’s members-only tour of the station is unbeatable.
When the museum’s tours are taking place, the station’s gorgeous chandeliers are switched on for paying tour participants, who get to right in the first car of the train.
Whether wondering how to spend a weekend in NYC or a longer city break for a week or two, checking out the Big Apple’s lesser-known, hidden historic gems affords a more intimate, private experience getting to know this metropolis’s illustrious history.
It also introduces visitors to the people who built it from the sidewalk up (and from beneath the concrete, too — the city’s old tales go much deeper than the paved streets).