Saturday, May 30, 2015

Stanford White's 1904 IRT Powerhouse 59th St and 11th Ave

photo by Jim Henderson
In 1900 August Belmont, Jr. and Andrew Onderdonk embarked on a massive project that would change the lives of New Yorkers forever.  Their Rapid Transit Construction Company (reorganized as the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in May 1902) obtained the rights to build an underground railroad system—Manhattan’s first subway.

The gargantuan undertaking entailed more than the blasting of tons of bedrock, the laying of track, and construction of underground stations.  The system would require massive amounts of electricity to power the trains. 

The neighborhood selected for the IRT’s power plant was San Juan Hill—roughly encompassing 59th Street to 65th, from Amsterdam to 11th Avenue.  While New York’s other grittiest neighborhoods—Hell’s Kitchen immediately to the south, Mulberry Bend and Five Points—were made up of a mix of ethnicities, San Juan Hill’s residents were almost exclusively black.    It was a district of gang violence, bloodshed, poverty and hopelessness.

The City Beautiful Movement, sparked about a decade earlier, held that monumental, inspiring structures promoted civic pride, morality and social order.  The theory was that by surrounding citizens with noble architecture, they would respond by behaving civilly.   The IRT set out to improve San Juan Hill with a noble edifice in the form of its powerhouse.

On September 18, 1901 The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide commented on the prospect.  “It need only be remarked that the location of the power-house in that vicinity will benefit the neighborhood, both by creating a large demand for labor, and by the tendency in improvement which an important public work always bestows upon its surroundings...It is stated that the building to be erected will not only be a useful, but an ornamental structure.”

Indeed, the Interborough Rapid Transit included in the building contract “All parts of the structure, where exposed to public sight, shall, therefore, be designed, constructed and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.”

The IRT had bought up the entire block of land between 58th and 59th Streets, and between 11th and 12th Avenues.  On the property were the sprawling Eastman & Co. slaughterhouses.  The firm was delicately described by Butcher’s Advocate as “the largest abattoir in this city.”

On May 31, 1902 it was announced that “The Eastman buildings, occupying the block on 11th av. between 58th and 59th sts, and extending to the Hudson River, are being torn down to make way for the new power-house.”   That same month the cornerstone was laid for the white marble New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.  One of the most iconic examples of City Beautiful structures in Manhattan, its architects, Carrere & Hastings, were probably considered for the powerhouse design.  But the IRT choose the equally-prominent but less obvious firm of  McKim, Mead & White.

It was Stanford White who would design the structure.  His Madison Square Garden, completed two years earlier, was an architectural tour de force and he approached the industrial powerhouse project with the same gusto.   His Beaux Arts design included pilasters banded by elaborate terra cotta, rows of grand arched openings (topped with wreaths on the 11th Avenue side), and eagles perching within the keystones.

The construction was repeatedly interrupted by labor strikes which, in turn, delayed the opening of the subway system.   On January 2, 1904 The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that “The easterly end is enclosed but the westerly half is still open, the structural steel-work there being underway.”  (The publication got the architect’s name wrong, naming S. L. F. Deyo instead of White.)

The powerhouse was nearing completion when the Interborough Rapid Transit Company released this shot in 1904 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW2TXNIV&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894

By February 18, 1904 The New York Times was becoming frustrated.  In announcing yet another delay in the opening, it advised its readers “The only advice which this statement suggests is, Do the best you can.  Every day of delay in opening this great public work to the traffic for which it is designed involves inconveniences to multitudes of people—not merely to those who will habitually use it, but to an equal number of those who will continue to use the now congested lines, surface and elevated."

Finally, eight months later on October 27 the power plant’s massive equipment—“twelve 7,500 to 12,000 horse-power engines, twelve generators and seventy-two 1,200 horse-power boilers”—came to life and New York’s first subway system was opened.

Having complained for months about construction delays, The New York Times now took the time to consider Stanford White’s completed structure.  “The Interborough management is entitled to a compliment for the civic spirit shown in adopting a design for the power house which makes it an ornament to the neighborhood in which it is placed.  By reason of the attention given to the chaste and admirable scheme of decoration and the building of its stacks of the same kind of bricks employed in its facades, the necessarily large cost of the plant was increased some $55,000.  It cannot be doubted, however, that this liberality was repaid.  The building is an ornament to the west side and enhances rather than diminishes the value of the surrounding property.  But for its stacks, it might suggest an art museum or a public library rather than a power house.”

Eagles appear perched on the keystones and in the capitals of the banded pilasters -- photo by the author

In the souvenir dedication pamphlet handed out at the opening of the system, the IRT congratulated itself on the handsome building.  “Several plans were taken up looking to the construction of a power house of massive and simple design, but, it was finally decided to adopt an ornate style of treatment by which the structure would be rendered architecturally attractive and in harmony with the recent tendencies of municipal and city improvements from an architectural standpoint.”

The booklet noted that “At the initial stage of the power house design Mr. Stanford White, of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, of New York, volunteered his services to the company as an adviser on the matter of the design of the facework.”   White’s volunteering did not preclude his acceptance of a $3,500 flat fee, however.

The plant was powered by burning coal.  Edward J. Berwind was the largest holder of bituminous coal in the country, and possibly the world.  The sole supplier of coal to the United States Navy and several railroads, he added the IRT’s order of 250,000 tons of coal a year to his list of contracts.

The reliable routine of coal deliveries from the Berwind-White Coal Company, in the IRT’s mind at least, precluded the necessity of vast reserve supplies.   Although the 59th Street power house had a reserve bunker capable of holding 7,000 tons, it sat empty.  But America’s entry into World War I would dramatically prove the company’s folly.

A 1904 postcard depicted the massive generators equipment.

The Government intercepted Berwind coal shipments and redirected them for use in the U.S. fleet of battleships.   On August 23, 1917 the coal at the power house began running out.  “For two days the fires at the Fifty-ninth Street power house had been fed from a dangerously small coal pile,” said The New York Times on August 26.   Finally, at 1:45 on the afternoon of the 25th the fuel was exhausted.

“Superintendent Merritt at once gave the order halting the trains,” reported the newspaper.”  At 1:50 customers were denied entrance to the platforms.  “After that subway trains rolled slowly into stations, where their crews were informed that the power was to be off for an indefinite time.”

Newspapers were outraged.  They reported on the thousands of straphangers stranded with no warning.   The following day an investigation by the Public Service Commission was begun, resulting in Acting Chairman William Hayward ordering the IRT to fill the reserve bunkers.  He was infuriated that “the Interborough had been operating on a hand-to-mouth basis.”

The great smokestacks atop the 59th Street powerhouse began once again belching black bituminous coal smoke.    But the solution to one problem became a problem in itself.   In 1947 civic and business groups launched an initiative to clear air pollution.  In reporting on a January 8 meeting The New York Times said the soot and smoke was caused in part by the improper burning of soft coal, “a major contributor to the quantity of soot in the city.”

“At the Board o Transportation it was said that extensive rehabilitation of the powerhouse at the Hudson River and Fifty-ninth Street would remove on the of the city’s soot spots.”

But there would be no solution.  Although engineers spent $20,000 in rehabilitation work, by 1954 it was obvious that the outdated equipment would continue to pose a problem.   On September 17 Dr. Leonard Greenburg, Commission of the Department of Air Pollution Control said “The darn thing’s no good and won’t be any good until the city has spent millions more for new boilers and other equipment.”

In 1959 the ownership of the powerhouse passed to ConEdison.  A complete modernization of the equipment resulted in the old steam engines being dismantled, installation of new and efficient boilers and, by 1968, the complete conversion from coal to gas and oil.  But the firm’s business-only approach to the building left no place for history or architecture.

The first of Stanford White’s elements to go was the elaborate terra cotta cornice, ripped down in 1968.  Around the same time openings were punched in the fa├žade, most likely in conjunction with the interior upgrades.  One by one the brick smokestacks—which had cost the IRT $55,000 in 1904 (roughly $1.5 million today)--began coming down.
 
When the Historic American Buildings Survey took shot photograph in the 1970s, the cornice and five of the smokestacks were already gone -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
Eventually ConEdison ceased producing electricity in the 59th Street powerhouse; using it instead for steam production.  However a 2007 study indicated that the plant produced only about 10% of ConEdison’s system requirements.

In 1979 the powerhouse was considered for landmark designation, but the effort was blocked by ConEdison.  The building came up for consideration again in 1990 with the same results.   In 2007 the Hudson River Powerhouse Group was formed to save the threatened building and repurpose it as a museum or art gallery, event and performance space, or even a massive indoor market.  

A flat scar replaces White's cornice, stretching the full length of the block.  photo by the author

In April 2009 the group filed a third request for landmark consideration, but to date the Landmarks Preservation Commission has not issued a decision.   In the meantime there is nothing to stop ConEdison from further altering the unique "ornament to the neighborhood."


Stanford White’s wonderfully monumental industrial building survives mostly intact despite the abuse.  Yet it appears that only intervention in the form of landmark designation will ultimately save it.

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