By Joy Bergmann
A faded limestone beauty that once powered nearby subway lines, the former IRT Electrical Substation No. 14 at 264-266 W. 96th Street will be demolished, beginning “in the next few weeks,” a spokesperson for Fetner Properties confirmed to WSR.
Fetner, in partnership with PGIM and Peakhill Equity Partners, purchased the City-owned site as well as two privately owned adjacent parcels between Broadway and West End Avenue, she said.
The developers are planning a new, mixed-use residential rental building, with 40 percent of units being set aside as affordable housing, Fetner’s statement said. Nonprofit Settlement Housing Fund will partner with Fetner on the project.
Fetner did not specify the unit quantity nor the target audiences for the new building at 270 W. 96th Street.
But NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development documents from 2019 show HPD expected 171 units to rise in a 23-story building: 80 micro-units [small studios] and 91 traditional dwellings. In October 2019, CEO Hal Fetner talked about marketing the micro-units to seniors. A month later, Community Board 7’s Land Use and Housing Committees approved the plans.
It’s unclear if Fetner’s 2019 renderings reflect what will ultimately be built; they don’t seem to show the 22-story tower from Extell Development currently under construction at 2551 Broadway on the southwest corner with 96th [formerly a Gristedes], just to the east of the proposed building.
Whichever way the new bricks and mortar line up, transit buffs and preservationists say they’re sorry to see the old substation disappear.
“It is an unfortunate loss,” says Sean Khorsandi, Executive Director of Landmark West! “Architecturally, the building merits landmark status as representative of our transit history and one of the first lines in the system. We need a range of landmarks to tell the story of our history, not just residential buildings.”
Khorsandi says LW! made multiple requests for evaluation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to no avail.
LW!’s webpage for the 1904 building notes:
IRT Substation No. 14 is one of eight original substations that powered New York City’s early subway system. The substations conveyed electrical currents to the subway tracks and lighting and signal systems from the 59th Street Powerhouse.
IRT architect Paul C. Hunter designed all of the substations with identical Beaux-Arts facades, reflecting City Beautify ideals, which sought urban improvement through architecture and public works. This particular substation was built by contractor John McDonald and William Barkley Parson served as the chief Engineer.
Above a granite base course at sidewalk level is a banded limestone base, two large arched doors, sets of tripartite windows, terra-cotta details, and decorative cornice supported by large brackets, the facade of Substation No. 14 create a screen between the industrial function of the building and the residential street lined with apartment buildings and shops.
Though the limestone and terra cotta will soon vanish, historians do have some excellent images of No.14 to reference.
About 20 years ago, photographer Christopher Payne documented the interiors and exteriors of multiple abandoned substations in his book: New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway.
“All over New York City, hidden behind unassuming historic facades, once hummed the gigantic machinery of the power stations that once moved the subways,” writes Payne. “For over a century, the 125,000-pound converters and related equipment of the substations remained largely unchanged, but in 1999 the last manually operated substation was shut down and since then they have been systematically dismantled and sold as scrap.”
For more on the 96th Street substation’s remarkable origins — including reportage from UWS community meetings circa 1901 — check out this post on Tom Miller’s architectural history blog, Daytonian in Manhattan.
Thank you to our not-to-be-named tipster for alerting us to this story.