Standing on the shore of the Hudson River it seems to declare, “Industry!” “Ambition!” It is a majestic symbol of the City-Beautiful era and modernity. Its compelling industrial beauty has inspired its most inspired definition yet:
“The building, a marriage of convenience, a modern metal shed with the face of an aging actress, the utilitarian made beautiful, is our city’s Temple of Power.” - Mosette Broderick, professor at New York University, author of Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age
For all of these reasons and more the Preservation League of New York State has named Manhattan’s former Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Powerhouse to its list of the Empire State’s most threatened historic resources, Seven to Save. The prestigious designation bodes well for the future of the Beaux Arts masterpiece.
“Since 1999, Seven to Save has mobilized community leaders and decision-makers to take action when historic resources are threatened,” said Jay DiLorenzo, President of the Preservation League.
The threat to the IRT Powerhouse has been substantial in recent years: four of New York’s oldest surviving power stations were demolished between 2005 and 2008. In 2009, Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., the current owner of the IRT Powerhouse, removed the last remaining of six original smoke stacks at the IRT Powerhouse.
“The masonry stacks that were part of the original building were removed after the equipment they serviced was retired,” said Allan Drury, Public Affairs Manager for Consolidated Edison. “The stacks were no longer needed and would have required continuous repairs to keep them from deteriorating.”
The former IRT Powerhouse was designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, New York’s first “starchitect” and designer of the city’s most significant Gilded Era facades, among them the Astor, Vanderbilt, and Tiffany mansions, the Century and Metropolitan Clubs and the original Pennsylvania Station. The IRT Powerhouse was constructed in 1904 to provide electricity for New York’s first subway system.
Occupying an entire city block that stretches from 58th and 59th Streets and Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, the mammoth structure became the largest powerhouse in the world upon its completion, representing the highest level of technical sophistication in the production of electrical power at that time. The building heralded a new era of electrical urban transportation, illustrating the power of technology to improve urban life.
The Hudson River Powerhouse Group, a non-profit group championing the effort to see the structure landmarked, has called the Powerhouse “an architectural treasure” and “the physical embodiment of”¦pride in one of the world’s greatest subway systems.” It powered the city’s subways for more than 50 years. In 1959, the subway system required less electricity to run effectively so the Powerhouse was sold to Consolidated Edison and became a steam-generating plant.
Today, the building stands worn and in disrepair after five decades of what appears to be neglect and what Landmark West! has described as “insensitive alterations to the historic building.” Landmark West! is an award-winning non-profit that works to achieve landmark status for individual buildings and historic districts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
While the building does appear to meet the criteria for landmark status, architects have gone before the Landmarks Preservation Commission to express Consolidated Edison’s opinion that the building is no longer a candidate for designation — it has undergone too many significant changes over the years.
According to details provided on The Hudson River Powerhouse web site, Consolidated Edison has contributed to the deterioration of the IRT Powerhouse: the company has “cut holes in the exterior walls, demolished the cornice and smokestacks, and punched out windows.” If the structure were to be designated a landmark Consolidated Edison would be required to maintain and preserve the IRT Powerhouse, without altering the faÃ§ade and structure of the building, “for generations to come.” The investor-owned company would also be expected to reduce its existing footprint substantially within the building and/or move its operations to a more sustainable location.
Consolidated Edison, first established as the New York Steam Company in 1882, provides energy to more than 12 million residents and businesses in the New York metropolitan area. “The 59th Street station is a critical component of our steam system, which is the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world,” said Drury. “We plan to continue to use the station for energy purposes well into the future.”
“Although the Powerhouse is currently still in use as a source of steam power for Manhattan,” said Robert Hammond, Co-Founder, Friends of the High Line, “it offers a long-term opportunity just as great, as energy technology advances, requires a smaller footprint, and opens up new possibilities for the building’s future use.”
The effort to landmark the former IRT Powerhouse has been in process since 1979 when the first public hearing in the case was held at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Since then Consolidated Edison has countered that landmark designation would make it more difficult and expensive for the company to operate and modify the station. “That would mean additional costs for steam customers and jeopardize the reliability of our steam system,” said the Consolidated Edison spokesperson. The company lists the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, the United Nations, hospitals and schools among its customers.
While the future of the former IRT Powerhouse is unsure its potential is certain. The building’s grand scale, pivotal location and glorious architecture have already captured the imagination of developers and investors. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, envisions a photography museum in the building. Robert Quinlan of the Quinlan Development Group, dreams of re-adapting the building’s enormous interiors into “a vintage auto museum with rotating exhibits and complimentary uses ensuring a constant flow of local and foreign visitors…” Others have suggested the space be used for performances, public events, general recreation and the exhibition of treasures currently warehoused in existing museums.
The possibilities seem endless for one of Gotham’s grandest buildings. Today, landmark designation for the building enjoys wide support, including that of Mayor Michael Bloomberg who sees its potential as a cultural center for the city. The recent addition of the former IRT Powerhouse to New York’s list of endangered treasures means the building is that much closer to claiming its place at the center of city life.
Follow Untapped Cities on Twitter and Facebook. Get in touch with the author @citygirlwrites.