June 28, 2017

The End of the Line at the Subway Terminal Building, Underground

It took me five years.

Some might say "only" five years; but still, it took me five years to finally get into the Subway Terminal Building's actual subway station.

Back in 2012, I'd missed an opportunity to take a tour of it. I don't remember what I was doing—gallivanting off to Death Valley or some other desert, I presume—but I was booked to be out of town and just didn't feel like I could cancel.

I thought the Subway Terminal tunnels would always be there. I thought I would have another chance.

But then rumors started swirling that the undercarriage of the building had been condemned, and no more public tours were allowed. Even the organization that had toured it while I was away couldn't get back in.

And so, I was stuck.

That building—and, specifically, its underground train station and tunnels—had become the one that got away.

Nearly two years ago, I got into the building itself—at least, as far as the lobby of what is now called Metro 417, a fancy residential tower whose renovation was completed in 2005.

I got to examine the coffered ceilings and the elevator bank and the historical photo display in the back...

...and chat up the security guard, quizzing him about what lie beneath.

"There's nothing really down there," he told me. But I knew he was wrong.

So, five years after my missed opportunity, I found myself standing outside the Subway Terminal Building, this time in the barrel-vaulted vestibule at the blackened entrance to the left of the current public and residential entrance.

Circa 1945 (Photo: LAPL)

It's both the one that they call "the retail entrance" (though no retailer has signed up to lease it yet) and the one that leads to the former grand concourse of the old Hollywood Subway Terminal.

It's not that there's nothing in there—but you have to use a bit of imagination (with the help of historic photos) to recognize what there is to see in there.

The coffered ceiling above has seen better days, parts of it having been tiled or even plastered over, and other parts altogether missing. You might never know that you're standing on a floor made of fine Tennessee marble (which isn't "true" marble per se, but it was fabulous enough to be used for the columns at the U.S. Capitol Building).

Most of the pillars, on the other hand, have lost their marble—and, in the cases where they had no marble to begin with, show only intermittent signs of glazed terra-cotta.

Perhaps most devastatingly are the more grandiose features that have been irreparably demolished or permanently blocked off, like the former spiral staircase and a number of elaborate ramps.

And yet, in some areas, it almost feels as though you could buy a ticket, or turn yours in for a ride. Collect a paycheck, or turn in a punch card after clocking out.

It feels as though the foreman has just stepped away to take his lunch break...

...or to check on some equipment...

...or maybe visit the restroom.

But as fascinating and as frozen-in-time those office areas are, any time spent there is time wasted not pursuing trains.

Or, at least, the ghost of trains.

The Hollywood Subway—part of the Pacific Electric rail line—opened in 1925, a relatively late date as far as subways go. (The London Underground began operation in 1863, and the NYC Subway launched in 1904.)

That meant the interurban rail cars only had three decades to chug along, traveling underground for just a mile from Downtown and out through the Belmont Tunnel, and then onto Hollywood or Glendale.

The Hollywood Subway took its last trip on June 19, 1955, departing the Subway Terminal Building one last time, on its way "To Oblivion."

Which is, I suppose, where we all end up someday... least, if you can't find the exit to the outside.

Down on the platform level, all the former recessed tracks—the actual terminus where the trains once pulled in to pick up and drop off their passengers—were filled in with poured concrete in the mid-1970s.

It makes you a little taller than actual passengers would've been, as they leaned against the pillars with their newspapers and their overcoats, waiting for the trolley.

There is one place down there where you don't have to do much imagining, because it's much as it once was.

But that's also the one place that you would've never found passengers standing around or taking a little stroll: in the tunnel. If any passengers ever saw it at all, it was through a window, from inside the train.

It probably would've been too dark for them to get a good look at the control tower, which still stands (though its metal stairway no longer has its steps).

They wouldn't have been able to examine the engineering achievement of the tunnel, which, a century later, would drip just enough calcium deposits to create the tiniest stalactites you've ever seen.

But those are things that we got to do during our all-too-brief jaunt through the tunnel, walking along the ghostly tracks of a bygone time, the rails all pulled up long ago. That is, until we hit the spot where the tunnel is blocked off.

But, since there's no question of what lies behind that barrier (just a few blocks away, the pilings for the Bonaventure Hotel, built between 1974 and 1976), all we could do was turn around and go back.

Circa 1925 (Photo: LAPL)

It's a bit romantic to think of those tunnels as having been completely abandoned—untouched—since the subway closure in 1955, but in reality, you can't have access to that much space without trying to figure out something to do with it.

Circa 1961 (Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, LAPL)

At first, in the 1950s, the Veterans Administration took over some of the office spaces, reporting using some former offices as repurposed examination rooms (some of which date back to as late as the 1970s).

In the 1960s—right in the thick of the Cold War—the sprawling subterranean area was designated as a potential fallout shelter that, in case of an attack, could accommodate as many as 10,000 people.

Preparing for the worst, the Office of Civil Defense stored thousands of empty water drums that could hold 17.5 gallons of water each, if filled in the event of an emergency.

But, since there never was an attack by the Russians, the lower levels of the Subway Terminal Building stood empty and abandoned for decades.

Last year, the Subway Terminal Building was back in media headlines, which touted the space as being redeveloped for retail—specifically, a shopping center and food hall.

No takers yet, though.

Selfishly, I'd like to see it left in its current, raw state and reused for more fleeting purposes—like an underground art gallery with rotating exhibits or an avant-garde performance space.

It would be a shame to tear down, fill in, or cover up even more of it.

For maps and historic photos, click here.
For photos from the 2012 tour I missed, click here.
For some really great color photos taken last year, click here.
For more on its historical and architectural significance, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Belmont Tunnel and the Hollywood Subway's Fade Into Oblivion
I've Outdone Myself Again
Photo Essay: Subway Terminal Building, Above Ground

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