What Lies Beneath NYC’s City Hall Park: Tour the Old City Hall Subway Station

If you’re from NYC or know a bit about our city’s history, you may be aware that there’s a little somethin’ special hiding below City Hall Park.  And no, I’m not talking about the remains of some famous New Amsterdam settlers (though I’m sure there are plenty of those as well).  I’m talking about a beautiful old subway station that has not been in use for more than 70 years.    

Old City Hall Station Sign
Old City Hall Station Sign

The Old City Hall station, also known as the City Hall Loop, opened in 1904 with the introduction of the underground subway system in NYC (elevated trains were already in use in NYC for more than 30 years before the subway opened). City Hall station was intended to be the crown jewel of the new system, and anyone who sees the beautiful station today can confirm that no other station in the current system can compare.

Sadly, despite being thoroughly spectacular, the station’s initial design simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of growing ridership on the subway (not unlike the far less spectacular stations of today).

As more people began to ride the subway, trains needed to be able to accommodate the increased volume and this meant that they needed to be longer.  But City Hall Station could only fit five cars at once, and the new trains typically had eight or more. Similarly, newer trains had different door placement, and since City Hall Station was built on a curve, the new doors opened up onto a large gap between the train and the platform, requiring retractable gates to be installed in order to safely board and disembark passengers.  

The station also began to lose popularity as the subway system grew and more riders began to use the nearby Brooklyn Bridge station, with its longer, straighter platforms, its tracks leading to Brooklyn, and its options for both local and express trains. Eventually, City Hall station was abandoned entirely in 1945.

Despite that station itself no longer being in service, the loop it’s built on is actually still used today. The downtown 6 train travels south on the loop where it then makes a 180 until it reaches the northbound side of the tracks and becomes an uptown 6 train. Until a few years ago, you used to be required to get off the 6 train when it reached Brooklyn Bridge, but you can now stay on the train and try to catch a glimpse of old City Hall Station while the 6 train does its loop.

Or…you can actually go and visit the station yourself!  

An Old City Hall Station Skylight
An Old City Hall Station Skylight

To visit the station today, you must first become a member of the New York Transit Museum.  Once a member, the museum will occasionally send out email blasts with their upcoming tour times, and then you must be sure to login and snatch up tickets before they sell out.  And they DO sell out fairly quickly. For security purposes, you also need to submit a copy of your photo ID and sign a waiver in advance.  

Back in 2015, my husband and I joined the museum specifically so we could take the City Hall tour!  To give you a sense of what happens, on the day of your tour, you’ll start outside in City Hall Park with a bit of history about the station, the creation of the subway system itself, and what the area looked like 100+ years ago.

After, you’ll walk around the park and see a few different skylights in the ground that actually allow you to peak down into the station. And then, you’ll head into Brooklyn Bridge station and board the 6 train on the downtown track.

Skylight in Old City Hall Station
Another skylight inside Old City Hall Station

Since passengers may stay on board for the loop now, the tour guide had to ask some of the folks who weren’t in our group to move to another car. Once the 6 left the station, we traveled a little ways before stopping in the tunnel. The train operator came and opened up just one of our doors and then put a walkway over the gap between the train and the platform to let us off the train. Once we were all off, the train continued on with its loop to the northbound side!

Old City Hall Subway Station
The Old City Hall Subway Station

The station is dimly lit, but it’s absolutely gorgeous!  City Hall was designed by Guastavino, who is known for his beautiful arched ceilings and decorative tiles.  His work can be seen in several places in NY, including Ellis Island, the Bronx Zoo, Grand Central Terminal, Prospect Park, and more.  Our guide gave us a little time to wander and then shared a bit more history and pointed out more of the station’s architectural and design features.  

All throughout the tour, there would occasionally be a 6 train passing through, and we laughed every time people saw us because you could see both confusion and delight on their faces.  My husband joked that it would have been far better if we had all done the tour in period costume. Would have definitely confused people then! After concluding the tour within the station itself, we waited for another 6 train to appear and got back on to follow the loop back to Brooklyn Bridge station.

Boarding the 6 Train in Old City Hall Station
MTA staff waiting to help us get back on the 6 train after our tour.

Tickets for the tour are about $50, and remember that you must also pay for membership to the Transit Museum as well.  The membership is great, though, because aside from getting to attend the museum itself (which is also REALLY fun), you also get discounted tickets for other interesting events.  

When we were members, we went to a couple lectures, did some walking tours, went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the 239th St. rail yard, and did a “Nostalgia Ride” from the museum to Coney Island on one of their vintage subway trains.  The museum is actually housed in another defunct subway station in Brooklyn, but they still have access to active train lines in order to bring their vintage trains in and out.

Another Old City Hall Station Skylight
Yet another Old City Hall Station Skylight!

If you want to visit City Hall Station, the next batch of tickets go on sale in January 2020, so you’ll have to join or renew your Transit Museum membership soon to take advantage of this members-only visit.  Typically, tickets only go on sale a few times a year in January, April, and August.

Truly though, the station is fantastic (and it’s also kinda fun sneaking on and off a subway train between stations), so it’s well worth the cost of the membership and ticket to be able to visit this stunning piece of New York history.

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