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.
  • Tonyespee

    Thats the old Santa Fe 2nd district.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LCBAETDUJKGWMPTSRX7GS2ZQ4Q Jack Madison

    The entirety of the los angeles metro area should be destroyed with all its inhabitants.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobzwol Bob Zwolinski

    I had the honor of taking a tour of the Subway Terminal back in June 1985, on the 30th aniversary of it’s closing. It was like going down into Tut’s tomb! Much of the original PE facilities were still somewhat intact, albeit bit dusty after 3 decades…
    What a pity is was abuptly suttered.
    The area around the Subway Terminal Building as well as Downtown Glendale went into economic ruin for decades after the Glendale-Burbank line was needlessly abandoned.

  • Jsmith

     GM,Standard Oil and Bridgestone tyres got together to buy and destroy the system,they were later sued -for peanuts.

  • http://twitter.com/stlbites stlbites

    Allisa, As I told a story at work today, about “the girl i went to high school with whose brother’s name was Luke Sky Walker” I stumbled upon your blog as I went googling for proof that I was telling the truth.  I found it, but I also found this post which is incredibly bad ass.  It’s awesome to see everything is going so well and congrats on your engagement. –Bill Burge

  • Alissa

    Hey Bill, that’s awesome! So glad I could help make you look cool at work, ha! Hope everything is going well for you, too! A

  • Jubilatedeo314

    Something similiar happened in Dallas in the 1930’s when the automotive/oil companies lobbied the city to get rid of the “antiquated” electric trolley system and replace them with buses that ran on gasoline. In a final triumph and funeral pyre, the bus companies burned the trolleys. I read this in the Dallas Morning News but just don’t remember the exact dates.

  • Fine7760

    The P.E. was sold and renamed Metropolitan Coach Lines. MCL was not part of National Cities Lines. However the L.A. Railway, the other streetcar company in L.A. , was sold to NCL and renamed LATL. Both MCL and LATL were sold in 1958 to the old MTA, a state agency. MTA closed down the remaining rail lines, the last in 1963. The last old PE line was to Long Beach. It closed in 1960. The Blue Line fallows much of the same right of way. It took about three years to build. But it only took six months for Henry Huntington to build the same line to Long Beach in the early 1900’s. I guess you could call that reversed progress.

    I remember riding the Hollywood Cars into the Subway as well as the PE Blimps to Long Beach and The Pike.

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  • Brett Walker

    Alissa when will another tour be held also can anyone access the tunnels to film?

  • http://twitter.com/alanapaints Alana Dill

    this reminds me of the tunnel in Cloverfield (just off the top of my head, I haven’t seen it since it came out in theaters). Cool pics!

  • old man

    Anthony, not REAL? Huh? I ride this NOT REAL system everyday that I don’t bike to work. I have not owned a car since 1999, though I have only lived in LA since 2006. I have always made it a point to live near the rail lines. Yeah, I don’t make it to every event or experience all across the city and county, but I love where I live and I credit riding the trains with my sincere love for everything LA. You learn the city, and the people, when you get out of your car.

    If you, and everyone who says similar “I want it all perfect, right now, just the way I want it,” type of statements about wanting a REAL rail system, you do nothing REAL to make this dream come true. Sacrifice a bit, maybe? Move to where the rails exist and ride them everyday. Every dollar you put into that ticket kiosk is a vote of confidence in public transportation, and we know, that dollars are REAL votes, that REALLY get politicians to listen. But, if what I ride today is not REAL, then am I REAL?
    But seriously….”Be the change you want to see…” -Ghandi. And if you choose to do so, maybe I’ll see you on the train. :-)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bigdumbgod Chris McCann

    More like an underground club for authentic underground punk and metal. I’d go to that (if there’s decent beer and generous wells)

  • http://www.facebook.com/bigdumbgod Chris McCann

    NYC loves and deserves you. Go and stay there, Jack-ass

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1416372418 Daylon Brock

    Thank you so much for these pictures! Although I haven’t lived in Los Angeles for twenty-two year, I did go past the Subway Terminal Building on Hill Street on a regular basis. Also remember seeing the sealed subway exit on Beverly and 2nd and imagining what it was like in it’s heyday. I shared this page with my wife, a native Los Angeleno, who was unaware of it’s existence. Thanks for the tour!

  • vicki

    I actually worked in this building from 1982-1983. Great building.

  • http://signedoffsandiego.com/ Rabid_Koala

    I loved the pictures and would love to do the tour someday.

  • marilyn

    LA transit system sucks and anyone who quotes ghandi is just talking out of their ass..

  • Kim Harris

    Great blog. This is very interesting and well presented.

  • Jerry Lem

    I spent some time working at the VA Outpatient Clinic that was located on the ground floor back in 1980. During my orientation, my supervisor led us down some stairs to an area where some light remodeling was underway. We got down on our hands and knees to peer down a hole in the floor, and lo and behold, our “floor” was actually the ceiling to the subway station! Using a flashlight, I could make out some of the ornamental plastered ceiling, and looking down, I could also make out a wooden bench for waiting passengers. I felt like Howard Carter peering into Tut’s tomb! A few years later, a district manager for the old Thrifty Drug store chain who oversaw the stores that were on 5th & Hill and on Broadway told me that there were once stairways and shuttered doors in those stores that led to access to the subway. Would love to go on this tour if you host it again!

  • http://vaticanlokey.theatricana.com Vatican Lokey

    Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this now rare experience with us.

  • anonymity86

    This is awesome. Please let me know if there is another tour!

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  • http://tomxvesely.blogspot.com/ thomas vesely

    you poor woman.

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  • mtlawleyshire

    fascinating. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.harvey.92 Bob Harvey

    I am surprised the’res not a bunch of bums and weirdo’s living down there. How do they keep them out? or did LA magically change into some kind of wonderful place since I left? 😉

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  • http://www.facebook.com/john.tighe.775 John Tighe

    When I started visiting San Diego in the 80’s, I was impressed by their light rail system. Though small, it was still more than what LA had at the time, which was nothing. It’s sad that in the time that LA has built a larger rail system, San Diego has increased theirs by only a few miles of track.

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  • Bob B

    It’s a shame that such an extensive system was abandoned. Perhaps it could be revitalized. After all, mass transit is sorely needed in LA. There must be some transportation system that would work here. If not, the right-of-ways would make a great walking, biking and hiking trail.

    Another aspect of this that interests me is how these right-of-ways that are above ground ended up in private hands. Did these people purchase them, or just grab the land when the system was closed? I have found that in other places, the land was never legally transferred to the people who are using it. Anyone know anything about this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobzwol Bob Zwolinski

    Alissa, Thank you for posting these great pics!

    I took a tour of the Subway Terminal on the 30th
    anniversary of its closing back in June 1985. To think that was almost 30 years
    ago! Most of the original motorman’s rooms and offices were still left
    untouched. It was like going down in to King Tut’s tomb!

    Friends and family told me that it took only 90
    seconds for the train to traverse the length of the subway. After it was
    shuttered, it took busses up to 25 minutes to do that same length in rush hour traffic.
    Soon thereafter, the immediate area surrounding the Subway Terminal Building as
    well as Downtown Glendale both slipped into economic ruin.

    That’s progress!

  • rrm

    because ford and gm wanted to make more sales

  • Melanie

    Hello! Does anyone know a contact to be able to get inside? I am wanting to do a photoshoot please let me know: melanie.dandrea@gmail.com! Thank you!

  • David

    Unfortunately, even under the idyllic scenario you say, not everyone can live near a train line like not everyone can live near where they work because, often, and statistically true, those who work lesser paying jobs often have the longer commutes because they must live in areas that are more affordable with less access to such accessible transportation. I applaud you for your analysis, but like the biker who claims everyone ‘should’ ride to work, the reality is that if everyone wanted to live close to work, there would not physically be enough affordable space to provide the masses who work somewhere a close enough commute to make that feasible either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.touhy.3 Mike Touhy

    What’s with the hostility old man?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.touhy.3 Mike Touhy

    Why would GM have done that? And it’s not like cars were new in the 50’s. Plus I can’t understand the PE shutting down knowing the road would probably have gotten to crowded. Here in the Chicago area, we’ve have trains, both city and suburban forever. Plus can we really blame GM for everything? People have the final say.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.touhy.3 Mike Touhy

    I agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.touhy.3 Mike Touhy

    Perhaps a dumn question but why was it closed in 85?

  • Guest

    Very good point David. You are also limited to bikes and trains becasue you will also most likely need to move when you better yourself and move to a new job. LA’s subways aren’t too bad but to comment on Anthony’s original statement, having the history behind this old station as a stop would be very nostalgic.

  • AnotherG

    Cars were not new in the ’50s, but the newfound post-WWII affluence of the USA middle class and industrial advances in mass production made during the war, coupled with an increased desire of said middle class to live sub-urban (as opposed to urban) life made the automobile afforable and attractive in a way that it never had before in America. Plus, too, back at the time, land was considerably cheaper around LA metro area, so expansion was natural and bound to happen. L.A. was something of a vanguard of this idea of “autopia” because of this confulence of factors.

    None of that is the fault of GM, of course. However, rather than invest in connecting rail lines between the suburbs (where people wanted to live) and the city center (where most people still worked), controlling companies instead used the takeovers as a way to redirect growth toward roads (which they sucessfully lobbied the government to subsidize, saving them money) and cars (which they were manufacturing).

    At first, they merely limited the growth of new rail lines, but they later began to remove them completely and shut down service, stranding those who couldn’t afford cars (i.e. those below middle class). And so the penetration of the auto came to the city. And, yes, believe it or not, this was before the days of “urban planning” as we know it, and we had no idea that roads would become so crowded. This wasn’t even considered a bad thing from the POV of the auto industry — it meant people were buying cars! I had to have it explained to me, patiently, by an urban planner friend that, by design, any road that’s necessary will become overburdened. And any road you build to alleviate that will also become overburdened. Traffic is the default state of any expanding, economically thriving city. This is not something we knew. Really.

    Cities that still have some semblance of rail infrastructure like Chicago, Boston, New York, and San Francisco often had to fight for it tooth and claw. And even then expansion was often hotly contested for lots of reasons, ranging from simply NIMBY attitudes, to the “white flight” that characterized much of the 60’s and 70’s. As someone from Chicago, I’m sure you’ve probably heard stories about what it took to get lines expanded historically. Once upon a time, San Francisco was to be girt completely by freeway, until the people had the final say, as you put it. The city, especially Twin Peaks or the coast, would have looked a lot different if they hadn’t.You can still see some old traces of what was planned today, and in 1970s movies like Bullitt you can catch glimpses of the now-demolished Embarcadero freeway.

    So, the best that can be said about why these controlling companies did that was out of self-interest, and the mistakes they made were from a lack of historical precedent and benign thoughtlessness. The worst is that they abused the public trust in order to fill their coffers and, being only interested in profit, gave no thought or regard to those who could not afford their products, who suffered further economically from their decisions, and help caused the decline and blight of the urban neighborhood. The history’s pretty fascinating.

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  • amtrakpax

    Remember they went on to kill the national rail system. And now they want to keep it dead.

  • amtrakpax

    The idea was to kill the city, by killing it’s rail system. It was to make you car dependent. Then move on to kill the national passenger rail system by removing the mail and putting on the highways. Mail was half the income of the long distance intercity trains. Now with the sold trains, disappearing air and bus service. They lobby against rail, and have a misinformation program to confuse voters into working against it.