This month in history: New York City goes underground

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2016

This month in history, the stunning City Hall Station was opened. Words by Simon Frost, illustration by Ashley Cooper.

Every week, an average 5.7 million people ride the New York City subway, but few will ever catch a glimpse of its first terminal station and architectural showpiece – City Hall, which opened 112 years ago, on 27 October 1904.

Its spectacular arched tile ceilings were designed by Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish master craftsman, architect and builder who arrived at Ellis Island in 1881, bringing his interpretation of the centuries-old Valencian architectural vaulting tradition, and his nine-year-old son, who he would train to succeed him.

Guastavino developed a cohesive construction system that used layers of thin ceramic tiles in place of aggregate within a Portland cement-based mortar, to create incredibly light, fireproof and mechanically strong, self-supporting vaults with huge load capacity over vast breadths (see Materials World, October 2014, page 36). These structural qualities, speed of build and the stunning impact created by the decorative final course of tiles eventually saw the Guastavinos’ work spread across many cities in the USA and beyond, with particularly high concentrations in Boston and New Yor.

City Hall was the original southern terminal station of the New York City Subway’s first line – the Manhattan Main Line – built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. Located directly below the seat of New York City government, in exactly the right place for the Mayor to show off the city’s new transport network, the station was perhaps always more ceremonial than functional. It was situated on a turning loop where few trains ever stopped, and its short curving single platform could only accommodate five cars, which made it obsolete by 1945, when most trains were too long to use it.  

Nevertheless, City Hall was something of a subterranean wonder. Designed by architects Heins & LaFarge, its curved platform did not require a single pillar, and three ornate coloured glass skylights (which were blacked out during the Second World War) threw sunlight onto the platform, also lit by a series of opulent brass chandeliers. The station’s mezzanine also features Guastavino vaulting – a complex dome of green, brown and white tiles reaching up to a spectacular glass oculus. 

Although long out of service, City Hall Station remains eerily intact – but seeing it is not easy. Paid members of the New York Transit Museum can book a place on the waiting list for occasional tours of the station available to around 40 members at a time. The only other option is to take a Number 6 train and hide from the guard after its final stop, when it uses the loop to turn back. Stowaways can catch an illicit peek at the ghost station, by skylight on a bright day or, clearer still, during one of the official tours, when the chandeliers are lit.