Welcome to the Upper West Side, where even our powerhouses are historic!
A powerhouse designed by prominent architect Stanford White at the turn of the last century has won landmark designation after a fight that lasted almost 40 years. The former IRT Powerhouse on 11th Avenue between 58th and 59th Street, built between 1900 and 1904, won unanimous approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday. The powerhouse, now owned by Con Edison, still generates electricity. The area surrounding it is now being built up fast, with the Riverside Center development bringing five new condos to a site just to the North (two are visible in the photo above).
According to the LPC, it was “the largest powerhouse in the world upon its completion in 1904, and is considered the most monumental building associated with the subway system in New York City. The building continues to play a vital role in the city’s utility infrastructure as a steam and electric generating plant serving hundreds of Manhattan buildings including the Empire State Building and the United Nations.”
And it played a crucial part in the development of the subway.
“When the IRT Powerhouse was built, it heralded a new era of electrified urban transportation. William Barclay Parsons, chief engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission, decided to run the new subway system using electricity, which was in its infancy as a form of motive power. The subway needed a powerhouse of unprecedented size, with a waterfront location facilitating the delivery of immense amounts of coal and the removal of waste ash. Planned by a team of distinguished engineers including John Van Vleck and Lewis B. Stillwell, a leader in developing alternating-current systems for urban railways, the IRT Powerhouse represented the highest level of technical sophistication in the production of electrical power at the time. It was capable of producing 100,000 horsepower and holding more than 30 million pounds of coal, with coal delivery and ash removal largely automated through a system of conveyors and hopper cars.”
Local preservationists have been advocating since 1979 to turn this into a landmark, but have faced opposition. Con Edison told West Side Rag in 2011 that “a landmark designation would make it harder for us to operate and modify the station.” Some locals, however, were concerned that Con Ed would sell the site to a developer, who would then build a new development there. Con Ed sold a powerhouse on the East side to a developer a few years ago.
If Con Ed eventually stops using the powerhouse, some people have considered other uses for the building, with Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter even suggesting it could become a photo museum.
In 2014, the LPC considered taking the powerhouse off the list of sites being considered for designation, but decided against it.