When you think of New York City’s subway stations, words like “elegant” or “breathtaking” probably don’t come to mind. But a trip to the abandoned City Hall Subway Station in Lower Manhattan will surely change your mind. This post gives you the steps to get a free view this hidden treasure from the inside of a subway car. A visit to this ‘secret site’ can be done just after one of our pay-what-you-like Lower Manhattan walking tours as well as our GPS-enabled audio tour of the area, which both end just outside of the station. The station is located at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Read our guide on how to walk the Brooklyn Bridge and make a morning, afternoon or evening out of it.
The old City Hall subway station was the very first subway station in New York City, opening in 1904 and closing in 1945. For many decades it wasn’t possible to visit the abandoned station, which remained pristine and stunning over the years despite its disuse. The good news is: we know how you can see the famed station and pay only the cost of a subway ride!
The station is at the end of the 6 train line which terminates at the “Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Station” in Lower Manhattan. It is located beneath the magnificent Municipal Building at the intersection of Centre Street and Chambers Street. Because the downtown-bound 6 train must make a U-turn to head back uptown, the train makes a loop through this secret station. Here’s how to see it:
NOTE: The 6 train is a local train. Depending on the distance you would be traveling, you might consider taking the 4 or 5 express trains to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station and jumping on the 6 train there.
Recently, public tours have been offered by the New York Transit Museum about 16 times a year. The bad news is: the tour is only available to those with who purchase museum memberships and who then must pay an additional $50 per ticket.
Dates for 2017
September 28 6pm-8pm
October 8 at 6pm-8pm
October 21 at 11am-1 pm and 2pm-4pm
November 12 at 2pm-4pm
November 18 at 11am-1 pm and 2pm-4pm
December 2 at 11am-1 pm and 2pm-4pm
December 17 at 2pm-4pm
Dates for 2018 not yet announced
Keep in mind that staying on the train isn’t officially legal. But it appears that MTA no longer strictly enforces the announcement that passengers leave the train at the Brooklyn Bridge station. Secretly visiting the station is somewhere in the ‘grey’ area of legality. The train conductors know what a splendid sight the old City Hall station is and seem to turn a blind eye to those who stay on the 6 train to catch a glimpse. If you are the adventurous type, you can approach your train conductor and ask politely, and with a big smile, if he or she will open the doors to let you have a quick peek at the station.
When to go
It’s best to go on a bright sunny day so that the station will be naturally illuminated by the skylights in the ceiling. For the best possible view (other than taking an expensive, always sold out tour) is to go on a day and time that an official tour is taking place. On those days the station’s chandeliers will be turned on for the ‘paying’ guests who will be riding in the first car of the train, so be sure to ride in a car further back!
On October 27, 1904, New York City’s first subway route started operating. The train began at City Hall and traveled north to Grand Central Terminal, through Times Square and up to 145th Street. The fare to ride the subway was a mere five cents! The architects of the station were George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge who also designed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The station has many unique design elements, most notably its lack of straight lines – with curved entryways and vaulted ceilings, the station has a delicacy like no other. This intimate station has electric brass chandeliers, intricate skylights, oak furnishings, white terra cotta, and decorative plaques. The arched ceilings were designed by the Gustavino family who revolutionized architecture with their patented ‘vaulted tile ceiling technique’ and whose works can be seen in over 1,000 spaces across America including 300 right here in New York City such as the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal.
By the 1940s, quantity became more important than quality and the larger, adjacent Brooklyn Bridge subway station had become the more popular station with ‘straphangers’. Unlike City Hall’s smaller charming station, Brooklyn Bridge’s station and platform could hold more commuters and accommodate longer trains. City Hall Station passenger numbers dwindled and the station was closed it to the public on December 31, 1945. Recognizing its beauty and its significance to New York City’s history, the station was granted interior landmark status in 1979.
Tip: Anytime you are riding the subway be on the look-out for great musicians, buskers, and performers. Our post about Where to find New York City Street Performers and Subway Music will lead you right to them!
Written by Courtney Shapiro