Contract One, Station One
The Jewel in
Just below the surface of City Hall Park sits one of New York’s architectural gems. Built during the City Beautiful movement, its design sought to uplift the spirits of New Yorkers on their daily commute.
City Hall Loop station—Contract One, Station One—was the flagship of New York’s first subway and the focus of the international press on October 27, 1904, when Mayor George McClellan connected the Tiffany-designed motorman’s handle to propel the first train north to its endpoint on 145th Street and Broadway.
The design of the other twenty-seven stations it stopped at that afternoon was dictated by the practical needs of subway efficiency—the architect’s only role was to choose the tile work that would cover the structural columns and walls. But the station below City Hall Park is different. Here, design and structure are one in the same.
Architects Heins and LaFarge were building the great Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine up on 112th Street when they got the subway gig, and they tapped into their best artisans to help design the unique station eight miles south.
Rafael Guastavino arrived in the United States from his native Spain in 1883 with a new way of building arches and vaults—glued-together layers of thin tiles instead of heavy granite blocks.
Guastavino arches and vaults are not only works of art (think Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar), they are self-supporting. There are no columns in the City Hall station because the visually stunning arches also carry the heavy loads. There was no need to decorate a structure because here, the structure is the decoration.
Its unique platform is a tight curve—a necessity because the turnaround track had to complete its loop without hitting the foundations of City Hall to the north and the huge courthouse that sat at the south end of today’s park.
City Hall Loop is all about the arch, from the curved track and platform to Guastavino’s trademark herringbone-pattern vaults that cover the upper control room, where tickets—never tokens—were purchased from an ornate oak booth. Brass chandeliers combined with leaded-glass skylights, still visible along the cobblestone street that passes in front of City Hall, to light the underground space.
And while sitting on an oak bench waiting for the train, you could view decorative plaques designed by Gutzon Borglum—who not only contributed more than seventy sculptures to the cathedral uptown but would soon move on to carve those four faces on Mount Rushmore.
But all things change, and while this station was the place to be on opening day in 1904, it ultimately proved to be a little-used, inconvenient, out-of-the-way, single-track station, and on December 31, 1945, it was closed for good.
You can visit the station today through tours led by the New York Transit Museum, or catch a glimpse of it by boarding the southbound 6 train at the Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall station as it travels the same loop it has for well over a hundred years to begin its northbound journey.
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