|Early postcard of City Hall Station - author's collection|
Rafael Guastavino's tiled arch construction was not a new idea in 1900; actually it had been used in Europe since ancient times. He simply rediscovered and improved it, yet earning himself a powerful reputation in doing so.
Guastavino, born in Valencia, Spain and trained as an architect in Barcelona, immigrated to the U.S. after he earned a medal of merit at the Philadephila Centennial Exposition in 1876. He founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company and marketed his tiled arch construction as the "Guastavino Tile Arch System."
His construction designs fit well with the popular Arts and Crafts movement of the period. Interlocking terra cotta tiles were installed in layers of mortar which enabled him to create strong arches with no visible means of support. Although the clay tiles were, individually, fragile; together they were incredibly strong -- often compared to the inherent strength of an eggshell.
While Guastavino was perfecting his tile construction, New York City was planning a subway system. Not only could the 19th Century elevated trains no longer efficiently move the multitudes of New Yorkers, they spewed ashes and soot and were noisy. Through the Rapid Transit Act of 1894 the State had authorized the city to build and run a subway. Six years later things got underway with the formation of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.
At what would become the City Hall Station, Mayor Robert Van Wyck put foot to silver shovel and formally initiated construction on the subway system. Architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge were commissioned to design the stations which were functional, white-tiled, nearly-claustrophibic spaces with individual mosaic themes or, in some cases, ornate tiles proclaiming the stations.
Except for City Hall Station.
The new mayor, George B. McCllellon, was explicit. He wanted it to be a showplace. "My station under City Hall," he insisted, "will be more beautiful than the rest." Calling on Rafael Guastavino, Heins and LaFarge incorporated his graceful soaring tiled arches, creating a vast, elegant station. Twelve brass chandeliers illuminated the earthy ochre, green and black Arts and Crafts tiles. Nine stunningly ornate leaded glass skylights pierced the ceiling of every fourth bay. On the opposite wall from the platform large bronze plaques honored the architects, the engineers and the politicians responsible.
At 1:00 on October 27, 1904 ceremonies marked the opening of the New York City Subway at the City Hall Station. After customary speeches, Mayor McClellan personally turned the silver key and acted as motorman, transporting the dignataries far uptown to the 137th Street Station. At 7:00 that evening, paying passengers (admission was by five-cent ticket) were admitted.
The City Hall Station was unusual in that, because it was situated at the beginning of the loop where trains would swing around to head back north, its platform was tightly curved. Eventually lack of use and this design element would doom the station.
Today tours are again conducted, although sporadically. While some of the skylights have suffered severe damage, some are surprisingly intact. There is some water damage and the once elegant chandeliers are covered in decades of gray dust. Yet the grandeur of Mayor McClellan's showpiece is still evident over a century after its opening.