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.