LA’s original subway

Update 3/15: According to Metro 417 the tunnels are now condemned and no longer available for touring of any kind—please do not contact them.

By now almost everyone knows (I hope!) that LA has a subway system. But did you know that this is not the first subway that LA has ever had?

Behold the Subway Terminal Building, hidden in plain sight in the middle of downtown LA, where at one point during the 1940′s over 65,000 riders were shuffling down into the depths of Los Angeles to board a train which traveled beneath the busy streets. And, fittingly, it’s just a block from where you might board the Red Line subway today.

The Subway Terminal Building was built in 1925 by Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver, the same architects who designed the Biltmore Hotel a block away, the Jonathan Club on 5th and Figueroa, and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. It was actually approved in a bond measure passed by Los Angeles voters—in the same election where another bond measure was passed approving a new City Hall.

Subway Terminal Building

I forgot to take a photo of it yesterday, but if you walk down Hill, you can see this lettering on the entrance to the lobby of the building (photo via), which is now owned by Forest City Development and named Metro 417.

Years of ceiling tiles

Passing through an unassuming black glass door, we started the tour in the huge ground floor space (which was big enough to be a grocery store, HINT) where we heard a presentation by John Lesak on the building’s renovation. As we maneuvered around the left-behind belongings of former Metro 417 tenants, above us you could see the years reflected in the ceiling. The bland, white tiles were peeling back, revealing an older, ornamental plaster ceiling…

Hollywood Subway Terminal 1946

Look familiar?

Signs of trains

Even up here, you could see little hints of the subway station below.

Into the dungeon

And with that, we headed downstairs.

Sub floor

The next stop was a little sub-floor that felt exactly like walking through a New York subway station.

Hollywood Subway Terminal platform level 1946

This guy wasn’t around anymore, unfortunately.

Hill Street sign

And here’s where we started to see the real evidence that the subway once existed: signage!

Type nerds

The type nerds in the crowd (myself included) were certainly happy.

Public toilets

The public toilets in those days didn’t afford much privacy!

Down another ramp

And then, down another ramp to the subway platform.

Track 5

And more signage. Look at the cute little pointing hand!

Exit 3

Suddenly we found ourselves in a vast, pillared space that, even with the tracks and trains removed, felt very much like a subway station.

Hollywood Subway 1946

Here’s what it looked like back then.

Subway Terminal, Track Level

You can still see plenty of those Exit signs.

MTA_1160 4th and Hill, Subway Terminal Building, Downtown Los Angeles

So if you’re standing where this photo was taken, and you turn around and climb through a little hole in the wall, you see this…

The tunnel to nowhere

Um, yeah. This is LA.

Scary

With a little bit of Saw 3 thrown in.

Dark and damp

It was very dark. And very damp—the space had flooded during the recent rains—but there was a tunnel that we couldn’t quite see the end of, so there was nothing we could do but walk…

Looking back

Here’s looking back the other way, towards the platform, with de LaB spelunkers heading down the tunnel.

Prayer lies

We did reach the end, where there was, of course, graffiti. After being used as a fallout shelter, the tunnel was sealed in the 1960s. Supposedly the Bonaventure’s parking garage is now on the other side. I’d love to go down there and see if there are any traces of the tunnel. However…

Old Red Car tunnel

You can still visit the other end of the (sealed up) tunnel. This is at the Belmont Station apartments, at the intersection of Beverly and 2nd. And—plug time—you can see it during the Big Parade, where we walk from Angels Flight to the Hollywood sign, coming up May 19 and 20.

If you look at the old maps of the Red Car (here’s a cool interactive version here that actually shows a lot of the staircases around the old stations) you’ll see how the tunnel shaved off travel times by going under Bunker Hill and emerging on the other side to connect with other lines. There’s lots, lots more on the Hollywood Subway over at LAist. And more on the Pacific Electric system over at PacificElectric.org.

Light in the tunnel

Of course, all I could think about was what potential this place had. How about a subway-themed nightclub? Or dinner parties on the platform? Underground dining, indeed!

Track 4-3

And the naming possibilities are endless. Track 3?

Update 3/15: According to Metro 417 the tunnels are now condemned and no longer available for touring of any kind—please do not contact them.

Here are more photos from our adventure, and if you click any of the photos in the post, they’ll take you to the originals, where you’ll find more to see. If you’d like to join de LaB for our next event (it’s a good one, although not underground!) sign up for our newsletter.

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  • richsol

    GM and other companies definitely did work to get rid of electric traction; however it wasn’t the only factor. People really were eager after the war to have their own, as large as possible house, which necessitated far flung developments impractical for rail. Also, post-war big city liberal policies made the cities increasingly expensive, dirty, uncivil, and unsafe, which helped drive people out.

    Also, the LA rail was operated as a loss leader by Huntington to help persuade people to move further out. Once the real estate was sold, he sold the money losing lines.

    In the modern day, one of the problems is that modern government and government contract unions make it quite slow and expensive to build anything and especially to operate anything. Here in SF the new Bay Bridge has taken much longer and cost much more for those reasons. Also, the SF rail, Muni has high fares, high subsidies from taxpayers, and very slow and creaky service. A lot of that is the pay scale (BART for example is on strike despite their high pay and great benefits), and also some of the effects of liberal policies; the city encourages the homeless to come with government handouts and favorable regulations, and in turn they render escalators and elevators inoperative by pissing and crapping on them.

  • Frank J Rucco Jr

    Great pictures and history. I live in Westchester NY and here there was a similar situation with the New York Westchester & Boston Rail Road http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York,_Westchester_and_Boston_Railway

  • Veddy Interestink

    You guys seem to like “cute little hands”, retro signage and walking through miles of moist, dark, creepy tunnels. Hmm. Good to know. But why pay to tour this?

    Just pay $2.25 for a Metrocard, add hordes of belligerent homeless people, sprinkle the floors with human feces, then be told you must navigate the above to get to and from work, and you can have this experience every day, as a New Yorker :)

  • Inspiring Words

    I think the best picture here is your feet.

  • Jim McMaster

    Because Auto Companies didn’t want los Angeles to have a massive subway system rivaling the one in NYC. they wanted people to be reliant on cars so they could make more sales. So they put their money to work killing it

  • DrakeMallard

    Standard Oil, General Motors and Firestone bought the subway so they could sell gas, cars and tires. Should of kept the original subway, eh?

  • JefferyHaas

    And the Blue Line expects to be completed by…what is it, 2015?

  • JefferyHaas

    Yeah, it does.
    You gotta problem with that?

  • J. B.

    Just curious, Old Man, could you tell me when routes 802 and any higher numbers actually started running? When I left CA in 2006, after having live down in OC for 10 yrs, I was only aware of the Blue Line (801), and I could see the one that runs along the 105, just didn’t realize these all connected. I am blown away, actually. Thanks if you can reply….I am really curious and couldn’t find history of on Internet.

  • Dark Penguin

    I’ve seen images of the subway terminal before. Since there was pretty much just that one short tunnel to the Belmont area, I’ve always thought the signage to the “Subway Trains” was a little overblown. Still it was a good transit system while it lasted. It’s too bad they couldn’t have kept a few of the lines running, at least the ones that mostly had their own rights of way like the Santa Monica Air Line, the Long Beach line, and perhaps some others.

  • Dark Penguin

    Not being able to buy a house eventually is a deal-breaker for many people (if not most), but many residents of older big cities have been resigned to apartment dwelling for many, many generations. It’s one of the tradeoffs one has to make sometimes. If you love city life and being able to get around by walking or transit, then you probably don’t want to buy that house in Corona, however much the expectations of our culture seem to require it. And vice versa for people who want lots of personal space and don’t mind being car dependent.

    As for suburbanites of greater L.A. at least some areas of the OC and the IE now have good commuter train service. And as each new Metro line or extension comes online, that makes it feasible for more suburbanites to use the commuter system.

  • Dark Penguin

    Wikipedia has decent articles on LACMTA (entire system including buses), Metrorail (rail system generally), and each of the individual rail routes specifically.

    800-series lines are the rail system, but these designations are almost entirely limited to internal documents of the MTA. Riders of the rail lines know them by their colors, except for the Expo Line which doesn’t have a color.

  • Dark Penguin

    Well, most of our long distance mail went aboard airplanes, actually. Is it not still true that nearly all mail traveling any distance goes by air?

  • Dark Penguin

    We don’t quite have that, but then as we all know L.A.’s system still doesn’t go to all that many places. But contrary to popular belief it does get a lot of use, and it’s long since lost the “new train smell”, metaphorically speaking.

  • Dark Penguin

    BTW he means it had been closed in 1955; ’85 was the 30th anniversary.

    In many sections, PE and LARy trains had to compete with motor traffic and heed stop lights, as not all routes had their own rights of way. Cheap fuel and ever more cars on the road meant more crowded streets and slower average speeds for the trains, which had to run at grade in many places, heeding stoplights and competing with motor traffic for space.

    That’s not to say that GM and Firestone didn’t take full advantage of the business opportunity, but given how conservative L.A. used to be politically it’s hard to imagine how this could have been avoided.

  • Dark Penguin

    It wasn’t just L.A., or even the United States; many cities in Europe and Great Britain switched from trams and streetcars to buses.

  • Dark Penguin

    It depends. IIRC the Expo/Santa Monica Air Line was owned by the SP when Metro purchased it in 1990. Since Metro had always intended to reactivate it as a transit line, they went only as far as leasing it to tenants who knew they would have to vacate eventually, and accordingly refrained from building any major permanent structures. The tenants tend to be tow/impout lots, parking lots, and similar businesses that don’t need a lot of infrastructure.

    By contrast, I believe Beverly Hills bought out the old PE route paralleling Big and Little Santa Monica outright, and there are now permanent concrete parking structures all along there.

  • Dark Penguin

    I wouldn’t shed too many tears over an abandoned subway station like this. The PE and LARy were good as far as they went, but much of the track mileage as in the map above was limited to street running. Arguably even a slow streetcar in traffic offers a qualitative improvement to the passenger when compared to a motor bus, so the old system had that, at least. But it wasn’t as if we *ever* had an extensive rapid transit system like London or NYC.

  • 220VOLTS

    Yep … I remember as a kid, my mom parking in a slot on North Brand Blvd, and taking the Red Cars to downtown LA. In those days, gas was rationed. As it was, and never again will be. Kinda sad, no?

  • Mike Dewey

    Did you ever get in touch with anyone? Would love to check it out myself if anyone knows a way in. mike@zermato.com

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  • Paying Attention in LA

    Actually the “Expo Line” did have a color… Someone named it the “Black
    Line” and drew a black line for the route before “Political Correctness” took the color name off the map
    and renamed it “The Expo Line”…

  • Dark Penguin

    Actually no. “Expo” has always been merely a temporary designation. When the DTLA Regional Connector project is completed, the Expo route will likely be redesignated as a single route along with the eastern part of the Gold Line, while the Blue Line will become one with the Pasadena section of the Gold Line.

  • Roger

    My great grandfather designed an above ground subway for LA in 1913, but it never saw the light of day for the same reasons, I mentioned it in my recent blog post, you are welcome to use the image of its blueprint: http://ericmerola.com/eric-merola-awakening/