181 Street is one of the most unique IND Subway stations and is in a relatively deep cavern with the station's two tracks and two side platforms in a single, giant white tube with a curved vaulted ceiling. This giant white tube lacks any support beams between the tracks or on the platforms except for a few green painted beams at the northern end of the platform where the exit to 184 Street is. The height of the vaulted ceiling isn't fully appreciated because a full-length mezzanine runs suspended, with oddly shaped green support beams to the top and walls of the tube, except for less than ten feet at the very northern end of the platforms connecting the station's two exits. Like at 190th Street one stop north, the platform walls have white painted arches that separate tall and narrow areas of white tiled walls. These walls form a pattern and every third arch is a mini name tablet says 181 in white mosaic tile with a purple background and black boarder (your standard IND name tablet). The other two arches have small black 181 tiles above what were former and tiled over in about 2002 advertising panels. There are two name tablets, one on each platform that fully say 181st St with the same purple background. These are beneath the exit to 184 Street where the tiled arches ends. On the downtown platform recently the MTA carved out a new small room for itself on the platform at what was formerly an wide opening between the two staircases up to the 184 Street exits, the sides of this enclosure have received their own replica but clearly more recently tiled name table.
To leave the platform there are three exits each to different places, quite deep below the surface and also unique because of the hilly topography of Washington Heights. The middle of the suspended above the platforms has two middle sets of staircases down to each platform. Each of these middle staircase connections starts with a few steps down to an intermediate landing directly above the platforms (that become narrower for these staircases) before continuing down with two opposite facing staircases down to each platform. The southern end of the platform has the namesake exit, here each platform has a staircase carved out of the southern end of the tube at the very end of each platform. These lead up to the mezzanine that becomes quite a bit wider. Next there are two separate connecting tubes, one has three narrow escalators (generally two going up, one going down) and the other a relatively wide but very long staircase with lots of very short intermediate landings. These lead up to a second, smaller mezzanine just below street level. Here are the turnstiles and once a full time token booth that was closed and removed in 2010 (The community is presently petitioning to try and get the clerk back). There are then four streetstairs, two each to the SW and SE corners of 181 Street and Fort Washington Avenue.
The exit at the northern end of the platform leads to 184 Street, here two staircases lead down to each platform, one abruptly ending at the northern end of the platform. Turning east are the turnstiles and a single high exit turnstile. (There were two sets of slam gate exits until 1994-1995). There is the station's one remaining token booth and then two exits one via a ramp, one via elevators, each of which leads to separate levels of a high, hilly cliff that are used as a short-cut by locals that go through the station without actually taking the subway. The nearest surface connections up and down the hill are 181 Street and a long flight of street stairs at 187 Street. This short-cut even remained open during the 2005 transit strike and was opened for passenger use before the rest of the A train between 168 Street and 207 Street (that experienced flooding at Dyckman Street and was closed for 8 days) in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy. A steep bright, with a painted white roof tunnel leads out to the bottom of the hill. This leads to a stone building with two sets of green doors and a formerly vertical illuminated sign that once said Subway along the west side of Overlook Terrace just north of where it curves and becomes 184 Street.
To reach the top of the hill outside of fare control are three elevators. Each is of a different age and operates separately, meaning at the landings the each of the elevators have their own call buttons but not one central call button (like most banks of elevators should have) that calls the next one out of the entire bank. The middle elevator is the newest, it has silver doors and was renovated in the early 2000s, the doors on this one take the longest to close (annoying commuters) even after pressing the buttons. It once had ADA auditory noises (beeping when the doors closed, more beeping on arrival) but these have been thankfully disabled. The one closest to the turnstiles (the left) was renovated in the 1990s (This elevator before its renovation was a relic from the station's opening in 1932, it was still hand-cranked operated and had to have an attendant). This elevator is normally staffed by an operator. Until 2003 all in service elevators at the five stations with elevators in Washington Heights were always staffed by operators for safety. The only other two stops on the subway with elevators not for ADA reasons, Clark Street and one entrance to Court Street were unstaffed before 2003. Today there is always one elevator that is staffed and little key cranked signs are installed outside each elevator to indicate the staffed elevator. They have three bilingual readings: Staffed Elevator, Unstaffed Elevator . All the elevators at the two Downtown Brooklyn stops are unstaffed. The far left elevator is the 'fast' elevator and oldest one in service. It's doors are still painted green. It dates from the first generation of automation in the 1970s and doesn't really respond to button pushes. It seems to have a mind of its own and just goes up and down on its own via a timer. The doors close extremely quickly, including once on your webmaster's arm.
These elevators lead up to its own quite large brick upper landing building at street level. This inside of this building is clad in brick and there are crew quarters used by the elevator operators. Four green doors (identical to the ones out of the tunnel beneath) two etched with entrance, are about six feet set back from the actual sidewalk and exit from the building. Above these doors black paint still reads: 'Independent System, Uptown to 207th St, Downtown to Fulton St.' The actual facade of the building, is painted white and is a nice example of the Art Deco designs of the 1930s IND Subway, there are subtle decorative lines around the buildings exit and above a tall vertical sign that reads subway. This landing is along the east side of Fort Washington Avenue in front of a pedestrian traffic light with street signs for W 184 Street (which isn't actually a street). This traffic light crosses to steps up and into Bennet Park that includes an outcropping of Manhattan schist that is the tallest natural point in Manhattan at 265 Feet Above Sea Level.