In the annals of history, the first subway system of New York City—conceived, designed, and operationalized by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT)—stands as a towering achievement of early twentieth-century urban engineering. Opening its subterranean iron gates on October 27, 1904, it served as a beacon of progress, captivating the hitherto streetcar- and elevated train-dependent denizens of New York.
A gem within this labyrinthian network was the City Hall station. Nestled on the local track of the IRT, it was swathed in an abundance of architectural magnificence. Illuminated by the glow of grand chandeliers, the station boasted a splendid assemblage of glass tiles. Its crowning glory, however, lay above in the form of Gustavino vaulted ceilings punctuated with ethereal skylights.
Paradoxically, this artistic marvel found itself lost on the bustling multitude of time-strapped commuters, for whom it was merely another point in their daily trajectories. Amid the constant ebb and flow of foot traffic, City Hall station languished in relative obscurity, never seeing the installation of turnstiles by 1923, a common feature of its counterparts.
The neighboring Brooklyn Bridge stop, meanwhile, stood in stark contrast. Enjoying the advantages of proximity to a variety of connecting streetcars and a frequent express train schedule, it lured many potential patrons away from City Hall station. Furthermore, a unique architectural constraint at City Hall, a curving platform, added another layer of complexity. The curvature prevented the operation of cars with center doors unless outfitted with a custom door control system to permit only the opening of end doors.
Photo: flickr.com/Joe Wolf
1945 witnessed a significant shift in the city's transit landscape. The ambitious endeavor of extending platforms to accommodate larger train contingents led to the shuttering of the City Hall station, a decision facilitated by the dwindling patronage of this once architectural marvel.
An intriguing element in this narrative of decline was the unique spatial puzzle faced by passengers embarking at City Hall. Should their intended terminus be anywhere below City Hall or even Brooklyn, they found themselves deposited on the uptown platform at the Brooklyn Bridge station. To continue their voyage, they had to navigate up and then down again to reach the downtown platform. Often, it proved more pragmatic to traverse the short distance to the Brooklyn Bridge station at street level.
Fast forward to the tail-end of the 20th century—passengers aboard the Lexington Avenue Local, known in contemporary parlance as the 6 train, were mandated to disembark at the Brooklyn Bridge stop. However, this practice underwent a transformation. The reinstatement of the skylights, paired with the rekindling of the station lights, sparked a resurrection of sorts for the City Hall station. Despite the inability to disembark and immerse in the station's rejuvenated ambiance as yesteryears' commuters might have, modern passengers have the opportunity to remain onboard, witnessing the station as the train gracefully loops around its tracks, en route to its northern trajectory.