Block-Sized City-Beautiful Powerhouse Landmarked after 38 Years

Former Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, at 850 Twelfth Avenue in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC.

Massive West Side powerhouse, designed by Stanford White, continue to operate as steam-generating plant. On December 5, 2017, Landmarks voted to designate the former Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, at 850 Twelfth Avenue, an individual City landmark.  The structure, which occupies an entire block along the West Side Highway, dates to 1905 and was designed by McKim, Mead and White’s Stanford White. The monumental generating station was built to power the Interborough Rapid Transit subway system, and was sited on the Hudson to facilitate the delivery of coal by barge. Consolidated Edison acquired the building in 1959, converting it to a steam generating plant. Cone Edison still operates the plant to generate power.

Built for the Interborough Rapid transit Company, an innovative public-private partnership, the plant was built to generate electricity, then a novel way of power a subways system. The structure was conceived of as being monumental, prominent and attractive, fostering civic pride in the accomplishments of the transit system. The building continued to generate power for the subway after the IRT was merged with the BMT and IND systems.

The form of the building was worked out by IRT engineers, and Stanford White was retained to design the exterior. White’s design visually unified the separate boiler house and generating station that composed the plant.  White clad the building in granite, brick and terra cotta, with Classical ornamentation drawn from French neoclassical and Neo-Grec architecture.

Staff stated that though the building had undergone alterations, being adapted to meet evolving power needs, and lost its original cornice, it still “retains its classical grandeur.” A 1950s annex is excluded from the designation.

Landmarks first held a hearing on the building’s potential designation in 1979, and again in 1990. At a 2009 hearing, representative of Con Edison spoke in opposition to landmarking, stating that the plant was critical to the City’s steam system, and needed to remain unencumbered by Landmarks’ regulation. Con Edison’s representatives also claimed the building had been heavily altered over time, with much original fabric lost.

Landmarks again picked up the issue in its backlog initiative. At a November 2015 hearing, Con Edison representatives again argued that the landmarking would make its energy production “more difficult and expensive.”

Designation was widely supported by elected officials and preservationist organizations. Research Department staff reported that the Commission had also received hundreds of written communications supporting designation.

When Landmarks convened to vote in 2017, Counsel Mark Silberman advised commissioners that designation would mean the building was the only operating power plant under such oversight in the country. He noted that that the plant was critical component of the City’s infrastructure, and one of the impediments to designation had been the question of how Landmarks would regulate the property as technology and power needs changed. He cautioned that designation would require the commission to “shoulder serious and unique regulatory obligations.” The plant is already governed by multiple City and State regulatory bodies from whom Con Ed must seek approval when making changes.

The designation report includes a “statement of regulatory intent,” acknowledging the realities of technical and regulatory complexity involved in the building’s continued use. Con Edison worked with Landmarks in drafting a master plan addressing foreseeable work.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron called the vote “thrilling,” and compared the building to Berlin’s AEG Turbine Factory, as an iconic industrial “cathedral.” Shamir-Baron commended Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan and the agency’s’ staff for plotting  a creative way forward to protect the historic building while enabling  the continuation of the plant’s historic use. Commissioner Fred Bland said the designation was a “breathtaking moment” in the Commission’s history, and commented on the “gorgeous wrapper” surrounding an industrial use.

Chair Srinivasan led a unanimous vote for designation. Srinivasan said that an “effective engagement” with Con Edison by Landmarks’ staff had allowed the vote to go forward.  She added that the property possessed special meeting not just for its history and architecture, but for its “special meaning” in urban design and planning.  Srinivasan noted that the Powerhouse was sited in a rapidly changing area, where residential uses were overtaking traditional manufacturing, and that the designation would ensure that he building’s contribution to the City will be preserved in perpetuity.

LPC: Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, 850 Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan (LP- 2374) (Dec. 5, 2017).

 By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

One thought on “Block-Sized City-Beautiful Powerhouse Landmarked after 38 Years

  1. Kudos to Mark Silberman for his experienced and skillful steering of this complicated landmarking agreement. His long service to LPC and the City deserves public recognition.

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