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'Do or Die' Moment for Preservation of West Side IRT Powerhouse: Activists

By Gwynne Hogan | October 23, 2015 6:12pm
 The powerhouse and 20 other buildings will be considered by the Landmarks Committee on Nov. 5. 
The powerhouse and 20 other buildings will be considered by the Landmarks Committee on Nov. 5. 
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

HELLS KITCHEN — Resistance from Con Ed has thwarted the preservation of the Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, a coalition of preservationists charge in a letter to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“The Powerhouse—a landmark by any definition—has lingered on the Landmarks Commission’s calendar for more than 35 years for no reason other than opposition by its owner, Consolidated Edison,” Landmarks West!, the Municipal Arts Society and ten other preservation groups wrote in an Oct. 15 letter.

They point to the fact that consistently over the years Con Ed has presented public testimony against landmarking the building. At the most recent hearing in 2009, plant manager James Stanzione spoke on behalf of Con Ed opposing the designation.

"Landmark designation will unnecessarily make it more difficult, restrictive and costly to operate, maintain, modify and enhance now and in the future," Stanzione wrote to the Commission. "Con Edison also opposes the designation because the Station is not architecturally significant, particularly in its present state, as there have been many changes to the building over time."

Preservationists staunchly disagree with Con Edison's assessment. They rank the building on the same level of historic importance as the old Penn Station, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the New York Public Library, according to Kate Wood, president of Landmark West!. 

"It’s a truly rare building in New York City,” Wood said.

The utility company denied blocking the landmark designation.

"We have a longstanding and productive working relationship with Landmarks Commission staff that has given us the flexibility to maintain and enhance the reliability of energy supply," Joy Faber said.

The massive structure was built in 1904 and looms over an entire city block between 58th and 59th Streets and Eleventh Avenue and the West Side Highway. It's Beaux-Arts facade was designed by the architect Stanford White, best known for his cold-blooded murder atop Madison Square Garden, a building he designed.

When the IRT Powerhouse was completed, it was the largest powerhouse in the world.

The powerhouse is currently used as a steam generating plant that provides steam that heats and cools around 1,700 buildings in Manhattan, about 12 percent of the steam the company generates, said a spokeswoman for Con Ed. 

Like the Powerhouse, dozens of properties have hung in limbo in the backlog of the Landmarks Preservation Commission for decades. In an attempt to clean house, the commission is holding a series of public hearings in the next few weeks where all the buildings will considered.

On Nov. 5, the IRT Powerhouse comes up for its fourth public hearing since 1979. Twenty other Manhattan buildings will be considered that day.

In the spring, the commission will either vote to expedite landmarking of the building, decide the building isn't worth the designation or take the item off the calendar, a spokeswoman for the commission said. 

While the Landmark's Commission is quick to point out that the delay in landmarking the IRT Powerhouse is not unique, preservationists argue its historical significance of the Powerhouse combined with the quick fire pace of development on the West Side, make landmarking the building an urgent need. 

“The loss of Penn Station back 1965 - even if people weren’t in the city, even if they weren’t alive back then - that loss resonates with everyone,” Wood said. “The scale of this building is in the same class. The significance, the history, the architecture are in the same class."

“This decision will determine...the fate of this building," she said. "[It’s a] do or die moment."

For more information about the Nov. 5 hearing visit the Commission's website. You can submit written testimony about the Powerhouse or any of the other buildings in the commissions' backlog by emailing backlog95@lpc.nyc.gov.