Con Ed Puts Wrench in Powerhouse Landmark Efforts

Event: Preserving the IRT Powerhouse
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.28.09
Speaker: Paul Kelterborn — Co-founder, Hudson River Powerhouse Group, Inc.
Moderator: Michael Samuelian — Co-chair, AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee
Organizer: AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee; AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

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Hudson River Powerhouse Group continues efforts to make IRT Powerhouse a landmark.

Historic image courtesy Paul Kelterborn; interior photo by Paul Kelterborn

The High Line has given industrial architecture conservationists a fresh example of how a well-managed preservation project can produce an aesthetic and economic success. A preservation group is seeking to replicate the feat for the Hudson River Powerhouse, a 1904 McKim, Mead & White design that fills the block between 11th and 12th Avenues and 58th and 59th Streets. Hudson River Powerhouse Group Co-founder Paul Kelterborn presented his group’s efforts to have the building protected as a landmark.

When the powerhouse was built, the New York Times wrote of its Beaux Arts design: “But for its stacks, it might suggest an art museum or a library rather than a powerhouse.” “If this building were 800 feet tall rather than 800 feet long, it would be a landmark already,” said Michael Samuelian, co-chair of the Planning and Urban Design committee and moderator of the talk.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is currently considering the group’s application for landmark status. At a public hearing on 07.14.09, “there was a lot of really favorable testimony — in fact it was almost all favorable. The only negative testimony came from Con Ed,” Kelterborn stated. One contrarian voice, Joseph Bresnan, FAIA, suggested that Con Ed remain, if more efficiently, sharing the space with potential new uses.

Con Edison, which has owned the building since 1959, opposes the landmark effort. No representative of Con Edison was present at the lecture, but the utility has reportedly claimed that landmark status would create extra costs and put an onerous burden on the utility company if structural changes were needed. According to Kelterborn, they also charge that the involvement of McKim, Mead & White partner Stanford White in the building’s design has been overstated. Also, the company has made a number of structural changes since purchasing the building, including the removal of its cornice and all of the original smokestacks.

Although no longer generating electricity, the powerhouse is still in service as a steam plant, generating 10% of the steam in the city’s system. There are ideas on the table for how the powerhouse could be used if Con Edison were to move its steam operations out of the building, including “a publicly accessible cultural space — in an ideal world,” according to Kelterborn.

The LPC has considered landmark status for the powerhouse twice before, in 1979 and 1991, reaching no decision either time. Con Edison opposed both applications. Kelterborn hopes that the Center for Architecture event’s high attendance reflects a growing interest in the preservation effort following extensive local coverage.