Old and New (and Hidden) in a Brooklyn Heights MTA Substation

This is the second time I’ve taken an MTA substation tour with Robert W. Lobenstein, the retired General Superintendent of New York City Transit. Tours with Robert are always fascinating because he’s a repository of facts–fun and useful–about NYC transit. It’s not a surprise that he has a display dedicated to him in the Transit Museum.

The first time I saw Robert speak was at Open House New York on a tour of the 53rd Street substation, the most powerful block in New York City you’ve never heard of. On this recent Transit Museum tour, I went expecting to see the ventilation facility that masquerades as a Brooklyn townhouse and Substation #21 in Brooklyn Heights, but I got much more than that.

First, Robert gave us a thorough tour of the Transit Museum, particularly the section dedicated to kids on how power and transit work in New York. None of us were kids, but we were fascinated. Justin Bieber in doll-form conducting the train in the third rail exhibit did not go unnoticed. Then we ventured out along Joralemon Street to check out this townhouse:

Don’t be fooled by the building exterior, the middle townhouse is actually a ventilation facility for the MTA. Located at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights [Map]

We then headed a few blocks over to Substation #21, active since 1908. The substation was built to power the IRT subway extention from Atlantic Avenue to both Flatbush Avenue and New Lots Avenue.  It’s a real gem because it simultaneously houses both vintage equipment and modern functioning equipment. This wasn’t for any preservationist motive. The substation needed to keep running during its  modernization, so we’re left with a wonderful side-by-side comparison today in the 21st century.  (In case you’re wondering what a substation does, it coverts High Voltage AC current into the DC current used by the New York City subways.)

The substation is also unique because it’s almost like a “second-hand” substation, built out of used equipment from all over the city. According to Christopher Payne, author of New York’s Forgotten Substations, old rotary #4 in Substation #21 was “the first rotary made for the IRT in 1903 was transplanted from its original substation #12 location on East 19th Street Manhattan.” The “second-hand equipment,” which also included switch boards and transformers, were once used to power the Manhattan elevated trains, but with longer trains and passenger loads, they just weren’t powerful enough. Payne says with emphasis, that at the time the IRT was a “frugal organization,” so reusing equipment and building new substations was the going policy.

It’s hard not to love the signs of age on the old portion of the substation:


Substation #21 is located at 21 Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights [Map]. Check out the New York Transit Museum for tours like this, including tours of the decommissioned City Hall station known as the “crown jewel” of the NYC subway system.

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.