Exploring the Subway Terminal Building with de LaB

With the recent opening of Metro’s Expo Line, greater Los Angeles’ rail transportation network moved another step closer to linking the dense Westside with communities across the southland and providing a viable alternative to the automobile, at least for certain routes. This milestone is noteworthy in that it represents yet another opportunity for a Metro transit line to remake the city’s built form, as well as its civic and cultural life. It also harks back to a time when the region had the largest electric railway system in the world, comprised of what were commonly called Red Cars.

As local history buffs know and older people who grew up in Los Angeles remember, rail travel was the primary way to get around the fast growing communities in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties during the first several decades of the 20th century. A central hub of that early rail system was the Subway Terminal Building, constructed in 1925 and located in downtown Los Angeles at 417 South Hill Street. According to the Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California, “in early 1944, a total of 884 trains, made up of 1194 cars, entered and left the Subway Terminal and surface tracks. At the time five rail lines used it…[and altogether they] carried 65,000 passengers daily into and out of the Subway Terminal.”

USC Libraries Digital Archive

While the Subway Terminal Building still stands in downtown, today it’s known as Metro 417 and is home to both boutique apartments and commercial space. Despite this transformation, the remains of the once bustling station still exist below ground. I had heard about this old facility for years, so when de LaB organized a tour of the building, I jumped at the chance to see it firsthand. This was urban exploration at its best!

While I could write up a long article about the building and the tour, I’m going to keep my post short. That’s not because I have little to say about this fascinating subject, but rather because Alissa Walker, one of the founders / hosts of de LaB, did an excellent job describing what we saw and explaining how the Subway Terminal Building fit into the city’s first rail system. You can find her piece here – complete with many wonderful photos both past and present.

Want to learn more about the Subway Terminal Building and the Red Car system? Here are a few good places to start your exploration.

USC Library Archives
The Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California

de LaB plans to host this tour again, so if you want to participate in that event or others that they plan, sign up for their newsletter here