On Thursday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission continued its effort to address its 95-item backlog. In the third of four sessions devoted to the effort, the first groups of properties in Manhattan received public hearings. Among the items in the first group of the day was the former IRT powerhouse on West 59th Street. Support for designation was almost universal, save for two representatives of the building’s current owner – Con Edison.
The monumental structure occupies the entire block between West 58th Street and West 59th Street between Eleventh Avenue and Twelfth Avenue on the far West Side and is officially listed as 850 Twelfth Avenue and 840 Joe DiMaggio Highway. To say the New York City we know today owes a debt to this building would certainly be accurate. It powered the first subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT).
The IRT opened in 1904 and ran from the now disused City Hall station, with its Guastavino tiles, up to 145th Street. The City Hall station is arguably the most beautiful subway station ever built for New York City and it was part of the City Beautiful movement spawned by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It also brought New York City the Washington Arch and the IRT Powerhouse. Designed by the famed Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, it didn’t sit in a part of the city most people went (it’s still being filled in today), but still served as a monument to what a city can be.
It was the largest powerhouse in the world when it was completed 111 years ago. The LPC’s own research statement from 2009 cites Beaux-Arts style drawn from Renaissance prototypes. It has a granite base, brick facades, two-story arched windows, and terra cotta moldings and keystones. Originally, it featured six chimneys, but they, along with terra cotta roof tiles and the upper cornice, have been removed. A much taller chimney is now in place on the site.
In the 1940s, the plant was expanded to fill in a vacant lot along Twelfth Avenue. That is not included in the proposed landmark designation. The plant no longer powers the subway. It currently powers Con Edison’s steam operations. If you’re feeling nice and toasty in your Manhattan home or office right now, you might have this building to thank.
The proposed designation of the IRT Powerhouse has had three public hearings so far. The first was on September 11, 1979, when two people spoke in favor of designation and Con Edison asked to delay designation. On July 10, 1990, another hearing was held and three people spoke in favor of designation and two (including a representative of Con Edison) spoke against it. Then on July 14, 2009, a third hearing was held, where 28 people testified in favor of designation and Con Edison opposed it.
That brought us to Thursday, November 5, 2015. About 19 individuals testified in favor of designating the building as a city individual landmark, though that number is a bit misleading since at least one of them spoke for herself and two others. Only two representatives testified against designation.
Elected officials who spoke out in favor of designation were Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Helen Rosenthal. Rosenthal spoke of how it “proudly proclaimed the arrival of electrified mass transit.” In addition, Jean Daniel Noland, who chairs the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee of Community Board 4 delivered their support.
Preservation groups lauded its design. Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council, while at Columbia University, actually worked on the current preservation plan and called the building a “masterpiece.” “With one glance at the Powerhouse, it is easy to see it is already a landmark, and deserves official recognition to ensure its survival,” she said (her full testimony here).
The New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Victorian Society endorsed designation, as did the Guides Association of New York City (yes, as in tour guides). Arlene Simon of Landmark West! read a letter from Stanford White’s grandson. Alyssa Bishop, representing architect Bjarke Ingels and herself as part of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, supports designation. The neighbors want it designated as well. A member of the condo board at 10 West End Avenue and the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice voiced their support (though the latter was through a representative).
Only Con Edison seems to be fighting designation of the edifice. Two of the power company’s representatives spoke. One said being a landmark would make steam generation harder. Another said that pieces of the roof or sections of walls sometimes need to be removed in emergencies. He also said that having to answer to the LPC would be too much to regulation on top of what the Department of Environmental Conservation already demands.
What designation would assure is that, when the plant is decommissioned (as it probably will eventually be), the architecture will stand as a testament to history and how beautiful a city can be when it really tries.
This wasn’t the only powerful item heard during Thursday morning’s session. One item that got a public hearing was the former Excelsior Power Company Building at 33-43 Gold Street. Also heard were Federal style homes at 57 Sullivan Street, 138 Second Avenue, and 2 Oliver Street. Other items heard were the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin West at 448 West 56th Street, the former James McCreery & Co. store at 801-807 Broadway, the 316 Broadway building, and the 143 Chambers Street building. Basically, it was only some of those structures’ owners who opposed those designations.
From this point, the commission will hold public meetings, at which time it will consider either prioritizing designation for some items by December 2016, removing items from the calendar by voting not to designate, or removing items from the calendar by issuing a no action letter.