City Hall Subway Station was the first subway station in NYC, which opened in 1904 and was abandoned in 1945, but remains in almost pristine condition today. It was once considered the crown jewel of the New York City transit system with its vaulted ceilings and whimsical skylights. Its architects, George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge are also known for their work on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Bronx Zoo. The semi-secret station has been featured in several films like the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them. There are two main ways to see this station: for free through the windows of the 6 train or you can purchase a membership and a tour through the New York Transit Museum.
1. How to see City Hall Subway Station for free
City Hall station is under the basement of the Municipal Building where Centre Street meets Chambers Street. The downtown 6 train takes a U-turn through this station to travel back uptown. Travel to this spot by taking the 6 train downtown (or another train to transfer to the 6) or you can also add this on after walking the Brooklyn Bridge as it is very close to the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
You can partially see the abandoned station for free by staying on the 6-train downtown past the last stop, Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall Station. Once the train arrives at the last stop the conductor will announce, “this is the last stop on this train, everyone please leave the train.” To see the station throught the window, simply stay on the train, you do not need to hide in any way. Note: staying on the train is in a legal gray area, but many do it as this rule does not seem to be strictly enforced.
2. When to visit:
It is very dark on most days, so it is best to visit during the daylight hours, when some sunlight can illuminate parts of the station throught the skylights. Another smart strategy is to take the 6 train on a day when the New York Transit Museum is supposed to have a tour, because then you know the electric chandeliers will be turned on. On the day of my tour there were many more onlookers in trains past the last stop that smartly visited for free when the lights were turned on for the paid tours.
3. City Hall Official Tour with the New York Transit Museum
City Hall was closed to any visitors for many years, but now you can attend City Hall tours through the New York Transit Museum. This is their most popular tour and lasts about 90 minutes. The tour begins above ground where a guide shares a brief subway history, also covered in our Subway Secrets and Top Subway Tips posts. Then the group goes underground into the 6 train stop where a subway train is taken out of commission just for the tour and personally herds the group and stops in the station. The museum staff moves a wooden ramp to cover the large gap between the train and the platform that is another reason why trains no longer stop at this station.
They say the underground tour is only about 20 minutes, but thankfully my group had about 30 minutes. Once off the train, it continues its route and it depends on the tour guide when they call another train to stop and bring visitors back to the active Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station.
There are about 16 tours available per year, but tickets are only released three times per year. Tickets are released usually in January (for tours from January – May), April (for tours from May to August) and August (for tours from September – December). Tours quickly sell out, so sign up for a membership here and watch your emails for the next available tour dates. Once you receive the email, sign up immediately and don’t forget you’re not confirmed for the tour until you sign a release and email a copy of your government-issued ID or driver’s license for a security clearance. Personal photography and video recording is permitted, but tripods, stands or commercial shoots are not. Children must be 10 and up to attend the tour, accompanied always by an adult. Ticket sales are final and reservations cannot be rescheduled.
4. How to get tickets to the official tour:
Step 1: You must sign up to be a member of the New York Transit Museum. You can purchase membership while visiting the museum or online. Either way, it will save you time if you setup your online account ahead of time. If you purchase your membership online, this will already be done. If you purchase a 2 adult membership or family membership you can buy as many tour tickets as you have people covered by your membership. See here for how many members are covered.
Step 2: Watch the email newsletter for new tour dates. I purchased my membership in the museum and asked the staff what day and time they would send the next email, so I was ready to sign up.
Step 3: Create an online account if you don’t already have one. Do this ahead of time with the purchase of an online membership or set it up before purchasing tour tickets to save time.
Step 4: Once you receive the email with the tour dates, sign up quickly as they often sell out within 30 minutes. Tickets are $50 per person and are non-refundable.
Step 5: Lastly you will receive an email requesting your security clearance paperwork and a copy of your government-issued photo ID in order to officially confirm the tour.
5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
For the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, City Hall station was rebuilt in a studio for the movie finale when we find out who Grindelwald is. During this main action sequence, this old station backdrop steals the show and I cringed to see any tile fall down in this fight scene. Learn more about this and other locations from the movie in our blog here.
City Hall station opened its doors to the public on October 27, 1904 and over 150,000 visitors rode the new train. It ran from City hall up to Grand Central Station and only cost five cents. It shut down in 1945, with the introduction of longer trains that were unable to stop at the sharp loop in the station. The station received landmark status in 1979 and remains today a jewel in the crown of the transit system.
7. More subway history facts:
1. Before the subway system we know today, there was a prototype subway run on Pneumatic power, like the kind Elon Musk is working on, called the Hyperloop. In 1870, Alfred Ely Beach launched Beach Pneumatic Transit, the city’s first underground transportation. It ran only one city block but used compressed air and water pressure to propel a single train car forward. Beach built the track in secret as a demonstration of how it could work. Though it only ran for 3 years, this is the system that is used to push mail through tubes today.
2. New York’s original transit system was above ground, until the blizzard of 1888 devastated the transit system, propelling NYC and Boston to build underground subway systems. Today only 60% of the subway is underground, 40% is above ground, often referred to as the “El” for elevated.
3. Another abandoned station, the old Myrtle Avenue Subway Station in Brooklyn, is now like a mini art gallery that entertains riders with a Masstransiscope of 228 hand-painted images that look like an animated cartoon.
4. In 1953 the subway began to take tokens instead of coins when the fare was raised to 15 cents since turnstiles couldn’t accept two different coins.
5. Tokens were easier to steal; some criminals would jam turnstiles then suck out tokens with their mouths. Workers would see this and often put chili powder or mace in the slots to combat thieves! Tokens were officially deemed obsolete in 2003 after MetroCards were widely in use.