LA’s Original Subway

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 actuallyapproved in a bond measure passed by Los Angeles voters—in the same election where another bond measure was passed approving a new City Hall.

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. That’s who conducted our de LaB tour yesterday, along with John Lesak of Page & Turnbull, whose offices are in the building, plus Evan Janney of Metro 417, the building’s new name.

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 apresentation 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…

Look familiar?

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

And with that, we headed downstairs.

The next stop was a little sub-floor that felt exactly like walking through a New York subway station. This guy wasn’t around anymore, unfortunately.

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

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

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

Here’s what it looked like back then.

You can still see plenty of those Exit signs.

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…

Um, yeah. This is LA.

With a little bit of Saw 3 thrown in.

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…

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

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…

You can still visit the other end of the (sealed up) tunnel. This is at the Belmont Stationapartments, 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.

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!

And the naming possibilities are endless. Track 3?

Update: Yes, de LaB are planning on hosting this tour again, please sign up for the de LaB newsletter to be the first to find out about their upcoming events!

7 Comments

  • Nito

    Can’t wait to go on this tour!

  • Sonja Rasula

    Alissa you are amazing… Seeing those photos gave me chills and reading your descriptions made me laugh. THANK YOU for sharing part of LA’s unique history with us! I’m going on the next tour for sure!!!

  • Super cool post! I love hidden spaces and I never knew about this long lost subway system

  • I ride the train/subway now every chance I get never knew about this subway..awesome story!Ell

  • Felisa

    We shot X-Files down there. So cool.

  • 16 Lizards

    Wow!! Gotta say that backwards !!woW

    I will definitely be awaiting the next tour and will cancel an overseas trip if need be to make it! How awesome to see the other end. I(n the mid 90s long before the Belmont Apts were conceived, we took a tour of the street end of the tunnel. We walked all the way to the end which would apparently be the other side of the Bonaventure. The tunnel curves at that point so you are in total darkness, about 2000′ from the portal. I’ve got film pix for those that seek them!

  • Alexis

    please please please please have this tour again soon!! i am almost willing to go do it myself, based on the info :)

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