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.

This entry was posted in building, riding, walking. Bookmark the permalink.
  • struxtravel

    What a fascinating tour! I would have loved to go on it too! 

  • Carol

    Is a hole in the ground, a void of empty tunnels what might happen to the current and future subway system one day?   What happens to the easements METRO is about to buy beneath private property if in the future – decisions are made to reroute the line?  What will happen if the tunnel is sealed off and not kept up?  Will buildings sink?  METRO should be made to continually keep the tunnels in good repair or fill them in and cease the easement gifting it back to the private property owner if they decide they no longer need them rather than sell or rent for another use.

  • http://www.manonthelam.com Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    Very, VERY cool!

  • Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

  • Sebastian_mele

    They should turn that into a very fancy lounge/restaurant/wine bar, and give it a subway name.

  • Pingback: Everything Old is New Again « Observations Along the Road

  • Pingback: Morning Linkage: Tour of LA’s First Subway, Fashion Inspired By Neutra | LA News Talk Radio

  • Jay

    I watched an episode of California’s Gold about this subway station and tunnel, and people have been dreaming of making it a nightclub or restaurant for decades.  The problem is that it floods fequently and the water is constantly pumped out.  What it would take financially to make this space a club or restaurant could never be recouped let alone turned into a profit.

  • TK7

     Cause LA definitely needs more pretentious nightclubs and lounges.

  • Hugo Bronson

    What they should really do with it is put the tracks back in, and turn it into LA’s TRANSIT MUSEUM.  They could link it into the subway via the Regional Connector that will be built soon.   If you’d like to see some actual moving footage of the station in use, with real live streetcars in it, check out the film WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, directed by Fritz Lang (!) which was filmed in 1955, I believe just after the station was taken out of service.  It was standing in for the New York subway in the movie.

  • Donaldwoo

     Many of these cars still exist.  They still operate on a rotating basis at a trolley museum in Perris.  More information can be found at http://www.oerm.org.

  • Davistrain

    I wouldn’t worry about today’s Metro subway tunnels being abandoned for many years.  The PE “subway” wasn’t a “rapid transit” subway like New York, with miles and miles of routes and dozens of stations.  It was a way to get cars in and out of downtown without battling the traffic on Hill St.  Once they came out of the tunnel, the route followed Glendale Blvd to the Echo Park area, where cars heading for Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley went up Park Ave. to Sunset Blvd., and Glendale-Burbank trains stayed on Glendale.  Note that this was mostly street running, with the slow speeds and risks of collisions with motor vehicles that type of route implies.  And neither the PE subway nor the present day Metro is likely to collapse, indeed they would probably be among the safer places in which to ride out an earthquake. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/fingertips67 Jon Wolslau

    wow

  • rafael607

    wow! very cool. but why was this abandoned/shut down? why didn’t this lay the groundwork for our eventual subway system?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1039586484 Juanita Anderson

    If that system on the map still existed, my commute probably wouldn’t take two hours.

  • http://www.facebook.com/torrmoz Torr Leonard

    no no no, how did I not know about this tour? Any chance they will do another?

  • LindsayWilliamRoss

    so bummed i didn’t get to go on this tour… fell in love with the 1925 hollywood subway when i wrote the LAist piece (thanks for the link!) the tour looks INCREDIBLE. !!!!

  • Anthony

    I wonder if any of it can be salvaged and refurbished to be used as part of a new subway.  Maybe it would cut a few billion dollars off of starting from scratch.  LA needs a REAL subway/rail system badly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/judylindemanfullerton Judy Lindeman Fullerton

    Loved the old photos – that is the way I remember it when I used to ride from Glendale to Los Angeles with my mother and grandmother to go to the ballet or shopping.  Thanks for the memories.

  • Lbrocker88

    This was sooooooooo cool to see and learn about!!! I have to go on one of these tours. Thanks for the pictures and blog. Keep up the great work!!!

  • Suzetteedmiston

    Loved this bunches : )

  • SCRTD BUS

    How can i get a tour please i would like to know 

  • Visitor

    No doubt my mother, a country girl from Indiana, used these rails when she arrived in LA in the 40′s.  She did not drive.

  • Kingofku

     In a way they are recycling some of the old Red Car routes and their respective right of ways.  The first that comes to mind is the extension of the Blue Line down Exposition Blvd and eventually into Santa Monica.  The second is the Gold Line that runs up the Arroyo Seco and down the 210 Freeway.

  • Papasmamma

    How can I find out how to tour the LA subway? Thank you!

  • Alizarian

    That is so cool. Thanks for sharing. My Mom used to ride the Red Car in the 40′s. My dad would drive in from a military base outside the city, work all night at Union Station to make $10.  Then he would meet up with my mom and they’d ride the Subway to Santa Monica and have a steak dinner and martinis, all for 10 bucks.

  • dawn

    Incredible tour, I hope to take it. I was just saying how it seems like we were the last place to get a subway system and wouldn’t you know it we had one before.lol 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1156321310 Mary Jane Hershman

    This is amazing! Thank you so much for the underground tour! I am obsessed with LA’s “underground” history!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1156321310 Mary Jane Hershman

     Have you ever seen the movie ” Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Not too far from the truth! Our awesome transportation system was sold out to the car/tire industry.

  • Minus Five

    Man, that looks incredible and the type is, of course, awesome.

  • Jas

    I’ve been wanting to go into these very tunnels for YEARS and wish I’d known about this tour :( 

    Thanks for posting this cool entry and great photos. I hope I can find out about the next tour in time to be part of it.

  • Sila_jacqueline1

    wow reminds me of the bart kind of an muni

  • Llandinguin

    Do you have any tours of the tunnels coming anytime soon?  I’ve heard all the about the streetcars and tunnels from my father.  Would love an opportunity to view them.  

  • Steven Lynch

    As far as I understand the single reply word needed here is   “GM”      long version, General Motors in the 1950′s started lobbying everybody to get cars, drive everywhere, don’t take public transportation.   Finally Pacific Electric had to shut down operations without enough profit and  that was the end of railways and easy public transportation all over Los Angeles… heck a railway that runs from Burbank to Downtown to West Side, to New Port in Orange County and to many other places…            That’s what this town really needs to be doing again by expanding the metro system to go everywhere….. ugh.  

  • Alissa

    Hey everyone, as I’ve noted in the text, the tour was hosted by de LaB, which is a group I co-founded that throws design-related events on the east side of LA. We are definitely going to do it again, so please sign up for our newsletter to be the first to find out about the next tour (or any of our events). Thank you! http://www.designeastoflabrea.org

  • Pingback: Hidden Los Angeles : The Original Subway

  • http://paulbeard.org/wordpress paul beard

    I remember hearing Tom Bradley talking about the LA subway of his youth 15 or so years ago but I didn’t realize all this was still there. 

    And the demise of the electric transit system on LA and more cities besides was part of a consortium (none dare call it conspiracy) called National City Lines, essentially a holding company owned by GM and other related concerns that sold cities on the efficiencies of their “trackless trolley.” We know them as buses. So the rails came up, the stations were closed, and the rest is history. 

  • http://twitter.com/Criblecoblis Robert Spencer

    Thanks very sincerely for this post, and all these marvelous pictures. I grew up here and have known about this subway since Ralph Story told me all about it, but I’ve never seen such extensive documentation of what remains. AWESOME.

  • http://blog.publishedandprofitable.com/ Roger C. Parker

    Dear Alissa:
    Thank you for a wonderful, photo-filled, blog post. Your before and after photos were masterfully arranged, and the text was very informative.

    This post was a joy to discover!
    Roger

  • Pingback: Links – May 21, 2012 | zota

  • Pingback: l.a.’s original subway | Blood Is The New Black

  • Pingback: LA’S ORIGINAL SUBWAY : fullinsight

  • http://twitter.com/drew_psu Drew Tatusko

    I am jealous of this whole adventure. I love to see modern ruins and this is a prime example!

  • timjelfs

    Hey alissa,

    I live in that building and always wondered what was down there and how I could get to poke around. Great article!

    Thanks!

  • Pingback: Los Angeles’ Hidden Original Subway System « Content Curated By Darin R. McClure & a few photos

  • Jimmy44

    It’s depressing because LA had so much potential.

    If we discover new planets, remember to remind everybody to control the demographics … if you let in Africa and Mexico you create an African Mexico.

  • Theburlyone

    Los Angeles was once the “American Dream”. Now it has turned to sh*t. I almost cried looking at these photos knowing that this is the future for the rest of the USA.

  • http://www.BlueBlazingMedia.com elizabethhannan

    Thanks for these photos! Was a very informative and interesting break from my day!

  • Pasmith29

    What a fantastic blog!  Thank you so much!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4POBPY5YVKB2GKF6QGXSQECNYA Bob C

    There are many, many images of the Pacific Electric Railway at:
    http://www.pacificelectric.org/
    Bob Chaparro
    Hemet, CA