IRT Powerhouse, Still in Use, Among Those Headed for Preservation

The IRT Powerhouse, now owned by Con Edison, appears headed for landmarking. | YANNIC RACK
The IRT Powerhouse, now owned by Con Edison, appears headed for landmarking. | YANNIC RACK

BY YANNIC RACK | The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) cleared a major hurdle in the preservation of an historic powerhouse in Hell’s Kitchen last week, but voted not to consider designating a range of other potential landmarks on the West Side.

At a public hearing to address its backlog of 95 buildings across the city, the agency selected 30 sites that will be considered for landmark status by the end of the year, after many of them have languished on its calendar for decades.

“The commission has spent months analyzing testimony and conducting further research on these items,” LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said in a statement after the vote. “Our actions today represent an important step in addressing this backlog.”

Preservationists across the city rejoiced at the decision to fast-track designation of the former Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse on 11th Avenue, but also criticized the agency’s inaction on a majority of the proposed properties.

“The powerhouse has been on our wish list for a number of years,” said Kate Wood, the president of Landmark West! “It’s obviously worthy of landmarks designation. It’s a monument of the city.”

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, agreed, saying, “I think that, in the end, it was a very open and good process that helped clear up a longstanding concern that the administration had about the backlog. But I would have liked to see many more buildings prioritized for designation.”

The LPC’s decision about the powerhouse came after more than two dozen residents and organizations testified in favor of its preservation at a hearing last November — one of several set up to specifically address the commission’s backlog throughout the five boroughs by gathering input from the public.

Stretching for a whole block between West 58th and West 59th Streets, the Beaux-Arts style powerhouse is one of the more ancient additions to the list. It has been in landmarking limbo for more than 35 years — the first time it was considered for designation at a public hearing of the commission was in 1979.

Since then, the agency considered the building in 1990 and 2009, but both times decided to delay designation because of opposition from Con Edison, which has owned and operated the station since the 1950s.

The plant is currently used as part of the company’s steam system, serving about 1,800 buildings across Manhattan — including some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, like the Empire State Building and Grand Central Terminal, according to a spokesperson.

When it was built in 1904, the building was the largest power station in the world, feeding a total of eight substations to power the signal and lighting systems of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway — the city’s first underground transit system.

But Con Ed is vehemently opposed to landmarking the iconic building, arguing that the designation would make it difficult to operate the powerhouse.

“We have a longstanding and productive working relationship with Landmarks staff that has given us the flexibility to maintain and enhance the production of steam and electricity from our 59th Street steam plant,” a Con Ed spokesperson said in a statement after the LPC’s decision. “We would like to continue that relationship with the Landmarks staff while continuing to meet our customers’ energy needs.”

At the hearing last fall, representatives for the company made their position even more clear.

“Our 59th Street steam plant is a living and breathing monument to adaptive reuse,” Gus Sanoulis, Con Ed’s vice president for steam operations, told the LPC commissioners then. “We need the flexibility to make changes to the plant’s interior and exterior that enable the cleanest, most efficient, and reliable production of energy.”

But its opponents point out that Con Ed has operated under restrictions for years, while the building has remained on the landmarks calendar. And the company has removed details like cornices and roof tiles from the building, as well as all of the station’s six original smokestacks.

Bankoff said he was pleasantly surprised by the commissioners’ “strong statement” on the building, considering that there is no precedent for landmarking an active power plant.

“I think that was a tough decision, because Con Ed is not in favor of landmarking — and Con Ed is a very potent force,” he said. “They were very vocal in their opposition.”

While the powerhouse will now likely be preserved, most of the properties that were considered did not make the cut.

The 65 buildings that were removed from the calendar last week include a number of West Side candidates, including the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, a three-story building on West 56th Street that is now part of the nearby High School for Environmental Studies, as well as seven current and former Broadway theaters on West 42nd Street.

According to an LPC spokesperson, the theaters were not included on the priority list because they are already subject to historic preservation requirements through New 42nd Street, a nonprofit organization that was formed in 1990 to oversee the redevelopment of the historic venues. That spokesperson also noted that the theaters could be reconsidered for designation “without prejudice” at any time in the future.

But the decision didn’t sit well with preservationists like Bankoff, who said that the vote was particularly troubling in light of recent controversy around the Palace Theatre on Seventh Avenue, which is set to be lifted up 29 feet to accommodate ground-floor commercial space — a concession to developers, according to preservation groups critical of the plan (see “Palace Theatre Raising the Roof — And Everything Else — 29 Feet for Commercial Space” in the December 17, 2015 issue of Manhattan Express).

“We understand that there already is a mandated role for the commission,” Bankoff said, “but we felt they really should be designated. If we’re living in a world where theaters in the Theater District are seen as ‘in the way,’ I would prefer to have the oversight from the Landmarks Commission.”

Terming the IRT Powerhouse a “gem,” Borough President Gale Brewer said, “Today’s votes mark a real achievement: The Landmarks Preservation Commission is clearing its backlog through a transparent, public, accountable process.”

Although Con Ed will likely continue to advocate against landmarking the powerhouse, preservationists said they were optimistic about their odds.

“I was honestly floored when I saw the powerhouse’s photo up there. It’s long overdue and I’m really happy,” said Alyssa Bishop, who is the president of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, a non-profit that was founded in 2007 specifically to get the building landmarked.

“We’ve come too far not to be optimistic now,” Bishop added. “The initiative that the LPC took at the hearing was too bold a move for them to back down now.”