The Place That Powered the Subway Lines

March 29th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Explore New York

Its architecture and ornate decoration reflect the City Beautiful movement, in which public buildings were expressions of a city’s beauty, order, and harmony. Yet it had a belly-of-the-beast interior containing massive boilers, conveyors, engines, steam pipes, and seven bunkers capable of holding up to 18,000 tons of coal. The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company Powerhouse was truly a structure of its time, originally built in 1904, a classically inspired place extolling magnificence along with technological innovation and industrial might. This building, which takes up an entire block from West 58th to West 59th Street and 11th to 12th Avenues in Manhattan, generated and supplied electricity for New York City’s first subway lines.

The Municipal Art Society is calling for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the IRT Powerhouse as a landmark. The MAS is hoping that the third time’s a charm since similar efforts failed twice before, in 1979 and 1990. Several other preservation and neighborhood groups, such as Landmark West and the Riverside South Planning Corporation, have joined MAS in urging the commission to designate the IRT Powerhouse as a landmark and in considering ways that the building could be adapted for other uses (e.g., a cogeneration plant, a museum). A not-for-profit organization, the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, has formed and is working to secure landmarking status.

To the MAS and others, it’s a matter of not only recognizing the powerhouse’s architectural significance but also its crucial role during an extraordinarily innovative period in New York City history and its place in the city’s industrial heritage.

In his book on the construction of the subway system, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York, author Clifton Hood called the IRT powerhouse “a classical temple that paid homage to modern industry.” I’ve walked and biked past this building countless times and always feel struck by just how huge and impressive it is. It has the dignified, richly detailed appearance that one often associates with a library, courthouse, or other similarly grand public building.

For much of this, one can thank Stanford White, whose firm McKim, Mead, and White provided New York with so many of its distinctive buildings from the Brooklyn Museum to the Morgan Library. White was responsible for the exterior design and the selection of its materials. The exterior is of the French Renaissance style with lightly colored buff brick and terra cotta Beaux-Arts decorative elements, such as wreaths and swags, along the pilasters and above large arched windows.

An original 1904 book on the building of the subway system noted that the IRT directors took a personal interest in the design of the powerhouse’s facework and ultimately decided that its ornate decoration would be architecturally attractive and match that of the era’s other civic buildings. Much of the building’s original details are intact, and one original smokestack remains.

A Jubilant City

Power plants are not always so architecturally dignified and elaborate, but it’s not surprising that this happened with the IRT Powerhouse. Just consider what an important and celebratory moment the opening of New York City’s original subway system was, with festivities, spectators gathering all over, parties, joy riders, and church bells ringing and sirens sounding. (On the first Sunday after it opened, some one million people swarmed the newly opened subway to take a ride, and the IRT had to turn many away, according to author Hood.)

The IRT and subsequently the city used the West Side powerhouse for about five decades. By the 1950s, the subway system no longer needed the powerhouse. In 1959, Con Edison purchased it from the city, according to The New York Times. Con Ed still owns it and uses the building to provide steam to private customers. Since Con Ed has opposed a landmark designation in the past, what will the utility company have to say about the possibility now?

When I look at this building, I wonder if it will be secured as a landmark and used in a manner that befits its heritage. Such buildings from an era in which New York took major leaps into its present teach us about our past in many important ways. This significant and beautiful structure from the birth of New York’s subway system deserves designation as a city landmark.

Update: The Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing on July 14 on the proposal to designate the former IRT powerhouse as a landmark.

Note: To learn more about the campaign to support landmark designation for the IRT Powerhouse, you can join the mailing list of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group. New York Architecture Images has an illustration and photos of the powerhouse, from the early 20th century, plus text from the 1904 book about the construction and equipment of the subway system. Check out a fascinating view of the technology and inner workings of the powerhouse in these 1904 articles, one from Scientific American and the other from The New York Times.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Nita

    Stanford White – every time I hear his name, this Pittsburgher thinks of the first “trial of the century” back in 1906. White, as you probably know, was murdered by Pittsburgher Harry Thaw, the irate husband of nubile actress Evelyn Nesbitt . Thaw claimed White had violated Nesbitt prior to Thaw’s marriage to her. Thaw killed White in a fit of jealous rage, but was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

    On my first trip to Manhattan, a tour guide showed us a couple of White’s beautiful architectural designs. The man who had only been part of an historical scandal gained flesh for me as I viewed his handiwork and touched the brick exteriors. The building brought the man to life.

  • Barbara Williams

    Thank you for lending me your eyes and words to see and describe a building that I have viewed often in a totally new way.

    Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to see what your travels may yield next!

  • Susan DeMark

    Nita,

    That’s quite an excellent description of the whole Stanford White murder case. I know of it but had never realized that Harry Thaw was a Pittsburgher. How many things have Pittsburgh connections!

    Your comments sent me on a little digging about the White-Thaw-Nesbit event. Turns out — and you may know this — Evelyn Nesbit was from Western Pa., too…born on Christmas Day, 1884, in Tarentum. She lived quite a while, until the 1960s. Thaw is buried in Allegheny Cemetery (which is in Pittsburgh as you know).

    New York Architecture Images has images of the Madison Square Garden that White designed and the place where Thaw killed him. For anyone who wants to dig more into the whole subject, PBS’ American Experience has a very good site about the “Murder of the Century” online.

    The word “sordid” doesn’t do the whole scandal justice. Blessedly, we have White’s buildings to enjoy today, but not the Hearst tabloid-side of his life. It’s something akin to watching an actor’s excellent work in film or theater and compartmentalizing it from that person’s private life when we need to. Sometimes it’s challenging, in my view. Complexities indeed!

    I’m happy you’ve been able to savor the experience of seeing Stanford White’s buildings in New York.

    Thanks so much.

    Susan

  • Susan DeMark

    Barbara,

    I appreciate your kind and positive words! Many times I had been past that building without thinking of it in particular ways, too. I had admired the powerhouse a lot but not focused on it.

    Your words definitely inspire me to do more.

    Thanks very much!

    Susan

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