Take a walk west on 59th Street, toward the Hudson River, and you will end up face to face with one of the most important buildings in New York City’s history. Situated between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues and occupying an entire city block, the legendary Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Powerhouse sits majestically amid a mix of glass high rises and vacant plots, next door to John Jay College.
Earlier this year, the Preservation League of New York State added the Powerhouse to its annual Seven to Save list of the state’s most threatened historic resources, to draw attention to a building that has been up for landmark status three times since 1979, with multiple attempts falling through due to opposition from its present owner, Consolidated Edison (Con Ed). In the past, a Seven to Save designation has helped to protect several buildings, including the Montauk Manor on Long Island.
The 1904 building, designed by legendary architect Stanford White of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, was used to power the city’s first subway system, which began running in the same year. The firm has designed several other notable buildings such as the New York Public Library, the Manhattan Municipal Building and Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus. The Powerhouse’s Beaux-Arts style of architecture, with high arched windows and characteristic flat roofs, is reminiscent of several other buildings that were part of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement, which was based on the idea that public buildings should enhance a city’s beauty and order.
With advances in technology, the building was no longer needed to power the subways, so in the 1950s the city handed it over to Con Ed, which uses it today to supply steam to about 1,700 private customers south of 96th Street, including large apartment building complexes like Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, as well as the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station, both landmarks themselves.
According to Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the building’s status is still under consideration. “We held a hearing on a proposal to landmark the building on July 14, 2009,” she said. Technically, there has been no delay because there are no mandated deadlines by which a vote must be taken after a hearing is held. Although it is not unusual for a vote not to be taken immediately after a hearing, there was also a change in the Commission members, which required a re-hearing of the testimonials given at earlier hearings.
“You should keep in mind, that before designation, our staff compiles a detailed report on the building or district in question, which is a very labor and research intensive undertaking,” said de Bourbon. The Commission has a busy calendar with designations in the works for more than 3,000 properties throughout all five boroughs. For now the Powerhouse is “calendared,” which means Con Ed has to get the LPC’s consent before making certain changes to the building.
One of the reasons Con Ed is against the landmark designation is that once the status is granted, the LPC would have to give permission for most types of work on the building. In 2009, the company was given the green light to remove the last of the six original smokestacks due to “its deteriorated condition and to protect the building’s façade and underlying structure from water damage,” de Bourbon said. What remains now is a 500-foot concrete smokestack built in 1968.
Another reason to avoid landmark status, according to Con Ed, is that it will cost the company a substantial sum to maintain the façade of the building (one of the requirements of a landmarked building), which would mean an increase in customer rates. The company also contends that since the building has been subjected to many changes over the years, and its original structure has been altered, it is not a suitable candidate for such a status, according to the 2009 testimonial of Michael Corcoran, senior architect with Con Ed.
The company’s spokesman, Bob McGee, said, “There’s a reason why there aren’t smokestacks on the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building belching black smoke into the city’s air – it’s because of the steam from the Powerhouse.” He stressed the importance of steam energy, explaining its essential role in maintaining the city’s air quality. “This is a working plant, supplying an integral commodity that benefits all New Yorkers.”
Given the neighborhood’s residential feel, Raju Mann, from the Municipal Arts Society, an organization that works toward smart urban design and preservation, said, “As that part of the city is changing, from a place where no one wanted to stay to a valuable area now, it raises a lot of questions about the place of old manufacturing buildings in such neighborhoods.” To him, people living in luxury condos on the Hudson wouldn’t want a steam plant near them.
On the plot adjacent to the Powerhouse, the Durst Organization is constructing a pyramid-shaped complex with 600 residential units. Jordan Barowitz, the company’s director of external affairs, echoed Mann’s thoughts. “ Our current rates take into consideration the presence of the Powerhouse, but if the space was more community friendly then there is a chance that the property value would have increased,” he said.
A topic always addressed during testimonials before the LPC was the use the building could be put to, if landmarked. The most commonly mentioned idea is to develop the building’s vast halls into a public access, mixed-use cultural space – like a museum, similar to London’s Tate Modern. In the past, several high-profile personalities including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, have expressed interest in the space, with Carter proposing to move the International Center of Photography to the cavernous Powerhouse.
Even some developers, like Robert Quinlan, founder of the Quinlan Development Group and passionate preservationist, would like to see the structure preserved. “It’s a major building in the city’s history,” he said. “That’s why it’s so beautiful – otherwise it could have been a factory in New Jersey.” If Quinlan had his way, he’d open a vintage automobile museum in the building; he also supports the idea of using the space as a gallery to document the city’s cultural importance. “I believe creating a mixed-use space would bring more people in,” he said. “Cars, fashion, photography – these are kind of sexy, they’ll get people interested.”
One of the reasons people, especially tourists, haven’t heard of the Powerhouse is because it isn’t centrally located. But Quinlan said that could be overcome: “With Lincoln Center nearby, the city could try to develop a shuttle service from Grand Central Station, through Times Square to the Powerhouse, making it more accessible.”
Preservation groups have been in talks with Con Ed about a possible sharing of space, but to no avail. There are conflicting reports of how much space the steam generators actually require, with some arguing that modern technological advancements would allow the operations to be conducted in a much smaller space, opening up the rest of the Powerhouse for other use. Lack of public disclosure has led to the discussion around the subject being nebulous.
“Con Edison has invested millions of dollars in the plant,” said McGee, “including investment to be able to generate steam from natural gas instead of oil, enhancing environmental benefits to the city. We wouldn’t be investing millions of dollars in the plant if we had other plans for it.” But Quinlan contends that it is only a matter of time before steam energy is replaced with a newer, more economic form of power and that the first step in preserving the building would be to grant it landmark status. The proposal, authored by the now dormant Hudson River Powerhouse Group, even has Mayor Bloomberg’s support.
With over 30 years having passed since the first landmarking attempt, it is impossible to predict how and when the process will end. It is safe to say, however, that there are many who will be sad to see the building demolished, including the employees who work there.
When asked how it was to work at the Powerhouse, a worker, who declined to give his name, answered, “Noisy.” He then went on to add, “ But it’s over a hundred years old. I want it to stay this way – they don’t make them like this anymore.”
Published in The Midtown Gazette – December, 2012