It was on the perimeter of a legendary slum that back then fit its name, Hell’s Kitchen. Yet it was conceived and designed by men in suits who believed that fine, grand civic buildings served to reflect the great accomplishments and ambitious aims of a city crossing a threshold. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) built and opened its gigantic powerhouse in 1904 to generate enough electricity to power New York City’s first subway system.
When it opened, it spawned praise and wonder far and wide, perhaps most from those who were knowledgeable enough to understand just how intricate and demanding a challenge it was to construct. The heaviest sections of steelwork for the powerhouse were of the same class as bridge girders, not ordinary building steel components, according to a 1904 article in The New York Times. The Scientific American observed in 1904 that the boiler room would ultimately house 72 boilers, with an aggregate heating surface of 432,576 square feet, and above the boiler house was a coal bunker able to hold 18,000 tons of coal. When fully constructed, it would be capable of producing more power than any electrical plant ever built, the IRT said.
But who knew that all of this industrial firing and generating went on inside? Its grand design and French Renaissance-style facade gave the feeling that the building housed paintings, books, or high courts of law, not boilers, engines, condensers, steam pipes, and coal bunkers. The IRT directors paid personal attention to the design of the plant’s exterior. Renowned architect Stanford White, whose designs of civic buildings and mansions included the second Madison Square Garden (demolished in 1925), the Washington Square Arch, the Judson Memorial Church, and the house of Charles Tiffany (demolished in 1936), volunteered his services and was responsible for the exterior design.
When it was completed, the powerhouse was a gorgeous, fine, and sophisticated building, with a facade of Roman brick and a prodigious amount of beautiful terra cotta decoration, on a granite base. It was a shining example of the Beaux Arts style employed in the City Beautiful movement. Moreover, the IRT building stands today as a remaining industrial witness to a time when New York City was energized by big dreams and desires to connect its far-flung parts and growing population and to use the latest technological discoveries to do so.
What Of Its Future?
The powerhouse has a slew of civic and activist groups, scholars, and citizens urging its designation as a landmark. The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering whether to landmark this historic and distinctive structure, thus providing protection to it, following a public hearing the panel held in mid-July. The LPC hasn’t scheduled a vote on landmark designation yet, a staffer confirmed on Aug. 10.
Those advocating landmark status range from the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, a citizens’ group founded by Jimmy Finn and Paul Kelterborn that is helping to lead the preservation effort, to Landmark West! and the Municipal Art Society. Also, a group within the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Historic Preservation makes a compelling case for landmarking in its 2009 plan, “Preserving the IRT Powerhouse,” with in-depth documentation about the building’s unique history and creative proposals about what could be done with it.
Sometimes the question of a landmark designation isn’t clear-cut. But in my view, this one is as clear as can be, as it is to those recommending that it be designated. Should it be possible for Con Edison, its current owner, to alter the exterior or in any way ever allow for the powerhouse to be demolished? Many have noted the risk, put as simply as this: Picture the first plant that ever powered New York’s subway lines knocked down and replaced instead by another nondescript glass tower. However, Con Edison has opposed the designation out of concern that a landmark designation could limit its current operations as a steam plant. (For additional history and background, see “The Place That Powered the Subway Lines” on Mindfulwalker.com.)
A Walk At the Powerhouse
More than a century after its opening, the building and its exterior are largely intact. Though its exterior needs a clean-up, the IRT Powerhouse still can wow anyone who walks around this mammoth edifice occupying a full block on 11th Avenue from West 58th to West 59th Streets in Manhattan. Seems no matter how many times I’ve walked by it along 11th Avenue that its size still makes me stop for a moment and take a step back in awe. In this Far West Side area full of car showrooms, apartment buildings, delis and stores, and nondescript buildings, the powerhouse stands out.
Beyond its impressive mass are the details and features. As the Columbia group’s preservation plan explains, the IRT building was not the only such plant possessing architectural beauty. Many electric power plants had grand architectural designs and huge arched windows, calling attention to their importance and to the technological advancements of the machinery within. Still, “grand as these buildings were, no power station serving New York ever matched the level of architectural sophistication and refinement achieved by Stanford White’s powerhouse for the IRT,” the Columbia report notes.
The 11th Avenue facade bears this out. It is a feast of terra cotta ornamentation, in the shapes of swags, medallions, leaves, flowers, and wreaths. Alongside each of the arched windows are column-like pilasters containing eight rectangular terra cotta elements with scroll and leaf work. Within the capitals at the top of the pilasters is more intricate work (below), including nifty jagged lightning bolts.
Centered at the top of the arched windows are keystones with elaborate terra cotta decoration topped by watchful eagles.
Near the tops of the facade, the terra cotta embellishment extends below, around, and above sets of three windows, with swags, medallions, and small scalloped arches.
A Marvel at Birth
Standing outside gives rise to contemplations not only of its beauty but the massive operations this structure once contained. Think of the building of a place where, for the first time in New York, power would be derived to run 800 subway trains, as J.C. Bayles wrote in the 1904 Times article extolling the place. Barges brought tons of coal to a pier at the end of West 58th Street, where it was crushed, weighed, and then conveyed via an underground tunnel below 12th Avenue and carried by elevator conveyors to the top of the boiler house.
The plant contained six sections that each had 12 boilers, two engines, alternators, condensing machinery, and the equipment that fed into the boilers. Each section also had its own chimney, each with an inside diameter of 15 feet. The highest reached 225 feet above the grate, the Times reported. (All six original chimneys, which could be seen above the neighborhood at the time when the plant opened, are gone. In 1968, Con Ed built the chimney that still stands.)
Many numbers associated with the operation were superlatives for their time: The powerhouse’s total horsepower, when pushed to the maximum, was 132,000. Pumps were designed to deliver 7 million gallons of river water to the condensers per 24-hour day, according to an article in Scientific American’s Oct. 29, 1904 edition.
By the 1950s, the powerhouse had become outmoded and the subway system no longer needed it. Con Ed purchased the plant from the city in 1959 and uses it to generate steam for private customers. Very few of the many electric-generating plants of that era remain, and certainly none touch the distinctive history of once powering New York’s subway system.
In its preservation plan, the Columbia University Studio Group recommends that the IRT Powerhouse be designated a New York City landmark and be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also suggests other strategies to preserve the building, such as a facade easement to secure preservation rights from a private property owner. The plan also proposes an ideas competition as an effective way to envision the building’s potential. Advocates such as the Columbia group and others point to other similar industrial buildings that have new lives, such as The Power Plant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Tate Modern in London (the former Bankside Power Station).
Buildings, like people, have crossroads in their lives, and this is one for the IRT Powerhouse. Those who want to see it have another glorious day first await the decision of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. As I walk around this storied building, I consider: Will it still be here, perhaps even rehabilitated or reborn, 50 or 100 years from today – or not?