By Emily Baer

The IRT Powerhouse located on 11th Avenue between 58th and 59th Street is a beautiful example of Beaux Arts architecture, but it’s also one of the most controversial buildings on the Upper West Side. A debate that began in 1979 about landmarking the powerhouse still hasn’t been resolved, and the future of the century-old structure hangs in the balance.

The powerhouse was built between 1900 and 1904 and when it was finished, it was the biggest powerhouse in the world. Until 1959 it generated the electricity that powered the city’s subways. In 1959 the building was sold to Con Edison and was slowly turned over from electricity to steam and today provides steam energy for buildings like the Empire State building, the United Nations and Grand Central Station, to name just a few.

Since 1979, preservationists have been trying to turn the building into an official landmark. In 2009, the Landmarks Preservation Commission even held a hearing on it. But the commission never ruled, and it’s unclear when this debate could be resolved.

All the while, Con Edison has opposed it for various reasons. According to Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Edison:

“We oppose landmarking the Station. It is a critical component of our steam system and a landmark designation would make it would make it harder for us to operate and modify the station. That would mean additional costs for steam customers and jeopardize the reliability of the steam system, which serves important customers like the city of New York…”

We also do not believe the Station is architecturally significant, as  have been many changes to the building through the years.

We have architects on staff who have expressed our opinion to the Landmarks Commission that, in our judgment, the building does not meet the criteria for landmark status.

The system provides heat and hot water to hundreds of buildings south of 96th street, and many of those buildings have converters that use steam for air conditioning in the summer.

Shutting the system down is not practical and would have a severe impact on customers. The most competitive alternative to steam is on-site, gas-fired boilers. But customers would face the expense of installing the boilers and electric air conditioning equipment. They would also lose rental revenue from the space taken up by the boilers.

The steam system also provides environmental benefits. Steam service reduces the use of trucks to deliver fuel oil. Production of steam in our central plants offers improved dispersion of emissions through tall stacks 350 to over 500 feet in height. Our boilers use low sulfur oil or clean-burning natural gas to produce steam. In a joint project with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), we have installed state-of-the-art burners to lower nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

Also, the use of steam air conditioning instead of electric AC eases the burden on our electric delivery system at peak times – heat waves – making electrical service more reliable.”

Kate Wood, Executive Director of Landmark West!, a non-profit organization dedicated to landmarking and preserving historic buildings on the UWS, clearly sees the site differently.

According to those in favor of landmarking, the Powerhouse building is considered to be an “architectural treasure and an important part of New York subway history.” It was designed by the same architects who designed the original Penn Station and Columbia’s University’s Lowe Library. If the Powerhouse is chosen to be landmarked, Con Edison would be required to maintain and preserve the building for years to come. Because Con Edison has not maintained upkeep over the years, the building’s façade has suffered some cosmetic damage, but most of the Beaux Arts features are still intact and Wood said that there would not be any costly or large-scale renovations needed.

Wood told me that Con Edison had been presented with alternative ways providing of energy to its customers instead of using steam, but those were dismissed. If the building is landmarked, it will not prevent it from providing steam to its customers, as only about 20% of the building is dedicated to that function.

There is also a concern about Con Edison will sell the land at top dollar. If this were to happen, the Powerhouse could be torn down and massive development put in its place. There is legitimate concern for this as Con Edison did sell land on the East Side that once housed a steam power plant. Developer Sheldon Solow paid $630 million in 1997 for 9 acres owned by Con Ed.

And just across the street from the IRT Powerhouse, a massive new development called Riverside Center is taking shape, with thousands of new apartments, retail space and a school . The incentives to sell the property may only grow larger.

One advantage to landmarking is that it could open the space to new uses. There is the possibility of opening an photography museum there or to turn it into some other community space. It could essentially become a hub for cultural events and transform the neighborhood as the “the next great public space” in New York City.

Designating the Powerhouse as a land marked building has many supporters, including City Councilwoman Gale Brewer,  publisher Graydon Carter (who has expressed interest in it being an international photo museum) and even, reportedly, Mayor Bloomberg. The Hudson River Powerhouse Group has put up a website explaining why they think it should be landmarked.

Of course, that entails going against the wishes of the building’s owner, a decision that has proved controversial in the past, most recently at West-Park Presbyterian Church on 86th Street.

We’re curious as to what our readers think of this debate and would love to hear from you. Check out our poll below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Should the Powerhouse be turned into a landmark?

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Top photo via Wikimedia Commons.