If, when riding the Number 1 train, you look out the window between West 86th and West 96th Street on either side, you’ll see the darkened hull of an abandoned subway station.
The station, including the tile walls, round columns and elaborate terra-cotta work, is still physically intact. But the walls are now covered with graffiti and the floors are covered with litter, dust and spray paint cans.
This is the former 91st Street station, which can be found on any pre-1959 subway map but then disappears from the scene. More recently, “Day One on the IRT” tours given periodically by the New York Transit Museum have given people the opportunity to see the station from close up.
According to Joseph Brennan’s excellent “Abandoned Stations” website, the station, which was part of the original IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) subway line of 1904, was built to avoid having a 10-block stretch between 86th and 96th streets without any stations. More modern lines, such as the A-C line built in the 1930s, frequently have distances of 10 blocks or more between stations. But if you look at that original line, you’ll see only seven blocks between the 59th and 66th Street stations, and six between 66th and 72nd streets.
When the station opened, the Upper West Side was still being developed. Eighty-sixth and 96th Street, says Brennan, still had no cross-town trolley or bus service, but “were considered to be likely candidates once the area became more developed.” They indeed became busy shopping streets, but 91st Street stayed primarily residential.
Asked what exactly made the Transit Authority close 91st Street, a spokesman for MTA New York City Transit answered simply, “Trains got longer!”
“The original IRT local stations were only built for a five-car length,” explained Andy Sparberg, a retired Long Island Railroad manager and a transit historian. The station was extended slightly in 1910, according to Abandoned Stations. Then, in 1959, the MTA decided to lengthen the stations on the West Side IRT to accommodate 10-car trains.
The 96th Street station was lengthened southward, and it gained a new mezzanine between 93rd and 94th streets, with new entrances. Since 96th Street now had an entrance only about three blocks north of 91st Street, said Sparberg, the Transit Authority decided to close the smaller local station.
“I don’t remember any protests when 91st Street closed” he added. “The people in the area were actually getting better service (because they were now closer to an express station).”
Like other IRT stations of the period, the entrances to 91st Street were marked by old-fashioned subway kiosks. After the station was closed, the kiosks were removed, the entrances were covered by pavement, and there’s no indication at street level that a station once existed there.
Underground, it’s a different story. A few years ago, a reader of the Manhattan Board, an online nostalgia site that attracts many Upper Manhattan residents, posted that for several years after the station closed, he would look out the train window at 91st Street, see five-year-old advertisements, and feel he was entering a time machine.
The station didn’t remain untouched for long. During the graffiti craze of the 1970s, 91st Street was a favorite target for “writers,” who painted elaborate murals on the walls. Then, newer generations of graffiti writers painted over the original graffiti.
The station has been closed so long, it has become the stuff of legend. One online short story, “The Subway Station” by Chananya Weissman, tells the tale of a homeless man who sleeps on the abandoned platform. One day, the lights suddenly turn on, a train slows down, and a man addresses him by name and commands him to get in.
This writer, too, has toyed with an imaginary 91st Street station tale–in this case, a fictional music video. It begins with one of the aforementioned subway tours. The tour guide is giving his spiel about the history of the station when he faintly hears voices harmonizing from one end of the station. Turning on a flashlight, he walks gingerly in that direction – only to see a middle-aged doo-wop group singing. Amazed, he asks them what they’re doing there.
“Well,” answers one of the group members. “We’ve been here since 1959, perfecting our sound. Now, it looks like we’re just about ready to come out again!”
If you want to see what it looks like now, visit nycsubway.org’s page on 91st Street. And if you get to go on one of those tours, bring a flashlight.