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.


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

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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  • BarttheCat

    So do you feel strongly about riding trains? lol….

  • Cliff Duyn

    You can thank gm and firestone for that. Look up the red car scandal.

  • Narvelan Coleman

    You are so right! As a child I lived on Long Beach Avenue, a stone’s throw from the legendary Central Avenue. The streetcar line ran right in front of our street. The streetcar was the main mode of transportation for thousands upon thousands of commuters; especially black domestics who commuted to the white affluent areas of LA to work on a daily basis. With this public mode of transportation working well for so many citizens…
    who were not entertaining buying the cars that most common poor working people could not afford in the first place……so they forced people to buy cars so that they could move around the city by eliminating that very viable public transportation system.

  • airamericaman

    Thank you Narvelan Coleman for such a great summary of why the streetcars were scrapped and now Los Angeles and many other U.S.A. cities are rebuilding their streetcar and subway systems for millions of dollars per mile.

  • Simon

    Except it’s an old urban legend (literally). The Red Car was going out of business because it was too expensive to maintain. Not a conspiracy.