Into the Depths of LA’s Old Red Car Subway Terminal

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The building’s owner, developer Forest City, announced earlier this month that they planned to get the ball rolling on the redevelopment of the ground floor and the two underground floors of the building, originally designed by Schultze & Weaver, with theidea of turning the 133,000 or so square feet into retail space. With Downtown booming with new residential projects and hotelsand with a handful of such projects getting underway next to this very buildingnow seems like a solid time to open the mysterious old subway station up.

Of course, the redeveloped version that’s eventually shared with the public will be much tidier than the space as it is now. Entering the station from doors along the building’s ground floor, the first thing visitors see is that it’s basically being used as a back porch for the condos next doorholding overflow furniture and the odd set of partition walls, like ones that would be used to set up a cubicle. All that stuff will go. What will stay is as much of the historical detail as can be saved, says Frank Frallicciardi, the Director of Development for Forest City West. And there’s a lot of saving to do.

A large room with columns and coffered ceilings, packed with would-be passengers for the Pacific Electric Red Cars. Wayfinding signs on the columns point to buses and telephones.A large room with columns and coffered ceilings, packed with would-be passengers for the Pacific Electric Red Cars. Wayfinding signs on the columns point to buses and telephones.
The ticketing floor in 1946. LA Public Library Photo Collection

The three levels that comprise the second phase of the building’s redevelopment have played a variety of roles since the demise of LA’s first subway. In addition to being a big storage room, some sections were once offices for the Social Security Administration, and then “an eerie underground hospital” for the Veterans Administration, as the LA Times put it back in 2003. The tunnel on the third and lowest level was used as a fallout shelter.

The coffered ceilings on the ground floor are plaster, Frallicciardi says as he walks through the cavernous space, triggering the staggered motion-sensor lights and revealing it to be largely empty. The room was once the lobby, the entry point to the terminal where thousands of people a day would have gotten their tickets and boarded Red Cars bound for destinations across the city. The columns were originally wrapped in terra cotta, but “a major renovation” that pre-dates Forest City resulted in “the loss of the column cladding and the installation of a suspended ceiling” that really messed up the original plaster, according toa 2006 report on the place from the National Register of Historic Places. Light streams in through a mouse-sized hole in the ornate ceiling; there’s a skylight behind it that runs nearly the width of the room.

A wide ramp leading straight into a wall.

The end wall of the ground floor comes more or less right up to Olive Street, and is bookended by the top half of two large ramps that once curved around to the mezzanine level below. Down on that level, the bottom halves of the ramps are also visible, though they jut out of a wall of concrete now. If a future tenant wanted, the ramps could be opened up again, says Frallicciardi, though it wouldn’t be easy cutting through all that concrete.

Through that door there are two things: the dirt-floored entrance to a tunnel that Red Car trains would have taken, and the ceaseless sound of the sump pump alarm going off.

Besides the ramps, the only reminder of the subway on this middle floor are the wayfinding signs to the long-gone tracks. This level is fully underground and has all sorts of pipes protruding from the ceiling. Remembering that this could have once been offices or hospital space, it seems like a stellar spot for either only if you’re a location scout for the next installment of the Saw franchise.

Down a long, lean ramp is the the level lowest to the ground, now totally devoid of the tracks and platforms that would have been here in the Red Cars’ heyday. The VA “converted [the] majority of the basement level track area in 1969 for offices,” according to National Register documents, but the neatlylabelled concrete pylons from the subway eraremain and note track numbers and street exits (“Exit to Hill Street”).

Frallicciardi says that they’re hoping to preserve these little details as much possible, but that in some cases, it might not be. What will probably end up happening is that, when new tenants move in, new emergency exit routes will be established, and in order to avoid confusion some extant signs will have to be “encapsulated.”

At the western end of this third and lowest floor is a big concrete wall with an unremarkable door in it. Through that door there are two things: the dirt-floored entrance to a tunnel that Red Car trains would have taken, and the loud, ceaseless sound of the sump pump alarm going off like millions of high-pitched cricket chirps in unison.

Not too far down, the tunnel is boarded up, but the trip to the end still takes about three minutes, walking past the not-so-sturdy-looking conductor’s station and into the passageway, because the dirt floor is uneven and muddy, and because it’s dark in there.

The sump pumps are necessary to keep the tunnel from flooding, says Frallicciardi, which it did regularly until they figured out how to control the groundwater that seeped in with the pumps. This tunnel actually belongs to the city of LA, he says, but Forest City maintains it. So though it would make a fantastic Blade-themed industrial club, the tunnel will not be included in the redevelopment.

A woman carrying a flashlight walks toward the light at the opening of an underground tunnel.

There’s a bit of time before the three floors of the old subway station get polished and clean and start looking restored instead of creepy. Frallicciardi says that if a tenant signed a least right now, it would take Forest City about six months to “deliver the space in a condition where a tenant could begin their own build-out within the space,” which he estimates would take around six more months.

So far, no lessees have signed on. As for what a transformed space full of retailers might look like, renderings are not yet available to show what could be on the horizon for the tri-level subway station.

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