Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pitiable Neglect - The West 96th Street Substation 11

Sadly some of the carved limestone ornamentation has been stripped off.

At a meeting of the West End Association on Tuesday, November 12, 1901 several representatives reported on the status of issues that concerned or affected Upper West Side residents.  On the list were the still-delayed paving of 72nd Street, the completion of the tiny Empire Park at Broadway and 63rd Street, and the "endeavor to improve the Circle at 8th av and 59th st, with a view to insuring the safety of the public using the same."

One of the most pressing problems was public transportation.  The Upper West Side's population had multiplied several times in recent decades and residents faced problems getting around.  The West End Association's Subway Special Committee reported on their meeting with the contractor for the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Co.  "He promised to complete portions now open before opening between 71st and 80th st, and satisfied the committee that he is doing all in his power to push work."

The Rapid Transit Subway Construction Co. was founded in 1900 by August Belmont, Jr. and Andrew Onderdonk.  It would later be renamed the Interborough Rapid Transit, or the IRT.   Creating tunnels, laying track, manufacturing the trains, and constructing stations was a massive undertaking.  In addition, the subterranean tracks would need electricity to power the trains along.

Powerhouses and substations with colossal generators had to be constructed.  The substations, which transformed the electric current generated at the main power plants, were generally located near passenger stations.   They were subsequently designed to meld into the residential or business blocks.  On October 23, 1904 The Sun noted "The substation buildings from which the electric current is served to the third rail are architecturally beautiful.  One of them might be taken almost for the home of a wealthy citizen whose fancy turned toward the heavy and impressive."

A year after the West Side Association meeting the subway was nearing 96th Street.  Even as the massive main power plant was still being constructed, plans were laid for the substation just west of Broadway on 96th Street.  On October 11, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that plans had been filed for "a 3-sty electric power station for the West Side branch of the subway, to be built at Nos. 264 and 266 West 96th Street, at a cost of $55,000."  That price tag would amount to more than $1.5 million today.

The architectural firm of Van Vleck & Hunter had received the commission to design Substation 11.  They produced a handsome Beaux Arts structure faced in limestone.  The carved ornamentation, dormered mansard roof. and two-story metal-framed bays created a striking structure that could hold its own among handsome civic buildings like firehouses and libraries.

photo from The Street Railway Journal, October 8, 1904
Despite its Parisian-inspired facade, the interior of Substation 11 was a no-nonsense cavernous space of gigantic transformers, switchboards and "rotaries."

photo from The Street Railway Journal, October 8, 1904

The new IRT subway solved the problem of transportation on the Upper West Side.  At least temporarily.  As the district continued to grow, so did passenger complaints.  An article in the Record & Guide entitled "Subway Deficiencies" on February 3, 1906 sounds remarkably modern.  It said in part, "The delays are constant, and are sometimes prolonged almost beyond endurance.  Instead of traveling to the City Hall in less than twenty minutes, the residents of the upper West Side and Harlem find that it frequently takes them forty minutes, and many of them believe that they can average much better time on the Ninth avenue elevated expresses."

Passengers would be frustrated until the opening of the Eighth Avenue subway line on Central Park West alleviated much of the congestion.

The 1906 dilemma exemplified the never-ending challenges facing the subway.  Subsequently, constant improvements in technology and efficiency would eventually result in both the main power plant and Substation 11 becoming obsolete.

On June 12, 1940 the Interborough Rapid Transit was acquired by the city to be merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority.  IRT properties, including the 96th Street substation, were transferred to the city.  No longer needed, it would eventually become abandoned.

In June 1991 the city's Division of Real Property attempted to sell the property.  In an unusual offering, it joined with the owners of two adjacent properties--No. 268 where the Salvation Army operated a thrift store, and No. 270 partially occupied by NAACP offices.  "The properties have more value as an assemblage than they do individually," explained planning director Margo Moehring to a New York Times reporter.  The minimum bid for the package was $6.2 million.

It was a valiant effort; or so it seemed.  But when there were no bids, Substation 11 was boarded up and essentially forgotten.  Weather and vandalism took their toll.  The first of the public complaints began around 2003 when multiple calls to the Department of Buildings reported a dangerous, unlit sidewalk shed which had been in place for years.

The concerns worsened as time passed.  In the summer of 2014 there were reports that the plywood over the windows was missing and pigeons were roosting inside; and in October 2015 journalist Emily Frost reported on the "growing homeless encampment" that had formed under the sidewalk shed.

In June 2017 a local resident complained "the entrance door is wide open" and voiced concerns that the building's proximity to elementary school P.S. 75 made it "unsafe for children who are curious and may try to go into the property."

Around that time rumors circulated that Substation 11 was to be converted to housing.  In the meantime Van Vleck & Hunter's once imposing Beaux Arts structure continues to decay.  Although its striking limestone carvings and mansard roof speak of its former industrial elegance, it has become a neighborhood eyesore.

photographs by the author


  1. I highly recommend Christopher Payne’s wonderful, heavily illustrated book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: the Power Behind the Subways. It’s a fascinating pictorial history of the waning days of these amazing and often majestic industrial plants that once dotted Manhattan

  2. "On June 12, 1940 the Interborough Rapid Transit was acquired by the city to be merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority."

    Actually, the IRT was handed over the the NYC Board of Transportation, which itself was renamed the NYC Transit Authority in the 1950s and only became part of the MTA when that state-run authority was created in 1968.

  3. Actually, this is Substation No.14.