This 1905 power plant is one of the West Side’s most beautiful buildings

With construction of the city’s first subway system underway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company needed to build a massive generating plant that would create enough electricity to run the new lines.

Industrial buildings aren’t always designed with beauty in mind. But this was the early 1900s, the era of the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful held that urban buildings should be architecturally inspiring and promote civic pride rather than be plain and utilitarian.

So while a team of pioneering engineers designed the interior workings of the building, IRT officials gave the responsibility of the exterior to Stanford White—the celebrated (and scandalous) architect whose brilliant artistic and architectural aesthetic was on display all over New York, from the Washington Square Arch to Madison Square Garden to numerous mansions, among other noteworthy structures.

White’s creation, known as the IRT Powerhouse, was completed in 1905. Spanning the entire block from 11th to 12th Avenue at the far western end of 59th Street, it epitomized the City Beautiful movement and looked more like a museum or concert hall than a coal-fed power plant.

Its location gives it away as an industrial structure. The Powerhouse opened at the nexus of two rough-edged tenement enclaves, Hell’s Kitchen to the south and the former San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north. The area was open and gritty, blocks away from the cattle pens and abattoirs of the West Side stockyards but with access to the river.

“Executed in the Beaux-Arts style and drawing upon Renaissance prototypes, it is the embodiment of the aesthetic ideas of the City Beautiful movement, which held that public improvements could beautify American industrial cities,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017.

“White’s design masterfully concealed the boiler house and generating station with elegant, unified façades cloaked in Milford granite, Roman brick and creamy terra cotta with neoclassical ornament.”

Sketch of the completed IRT Powerhouse, 1904

Christopher Gray, writing in the New York Times in 1991, had this to say: “Giant arched windows march down each side, separated by huge pilasters and topped by an attic story and, originally, an elaborate projecting cornice. Some of the detailing is patterned after electrical designs but most is like a stylebook of classical patterns: delicate wreaths, sharp palmette leaves, swags and the like—an esthetic anomaly in this industrial area.”

This commemoration of industrial might and power has undergone some changes in the ensuing years. The cornice was stripped, and only one of the original smokestacks survives. In the last decade or so, the formerly gritty neighborhood has become the site of modern apartment towers that offer a cool contrast to the warmth of the power plant’s brick and terra cotta.

When the IRT went under three decades after launching the first subway lines, the city took the plant. “The city took possession of the building in the early 1930’s when it bought the IRT lines, and Con Ed bought the station from the city in 1957,” stated Michael Pollak in the New York Times‘ FYI column in 2006.

Instead of electricity, the power plant now creates steam for Manhattan buildings. It’s also an official landmark as of 2017, “a monument to the engineers and architects who planned and built New York City’s first successful subway system,” per the LPC.

[Fourth image: Wikipedia]

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7 Responses to “This 1905 power plant is one of the West Side’s most beautiful buildings”

  1. Charles Leerhsen Says:

    Did I miss something? What street is it on? Thanks.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Paul Tatara Says:

    My family and I lived three blocks away from this building for seventeen years. I photographed it scores of times. Thanks for the information. I knew a bit about it, but certainly not that it was designed by Stanford-White!

  3. JILL GILL Says:

    Thank you for your insightful articles. Much appreciated .
    The Lost New York section of my website might interest you- some of my 100 watercolor-and-ink paintings from my soon-to-be published “Building Memories: Lost New York”,

  4. Greg Says:

    It is a bit diminished without the cornice and other smokestacks but delightful nonetheless that we still have it.

  5. velovixen Says:

    Thirty years ago, I worked at John Jay College, a couple of blocks from the power house. Back then, the area around it was almost too forlorn to seem as gritty as it once was. But now, as this post points out, the area is being developed. So, it seems, that beautiful building is destined to be a “misfit” or “rebel,” if you will. That’s somehow fitting: So much of the world’s beauty has come from misfits and rebels.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    Impressive in its classic architecture; equally impressive that it is still functional and vital. Interesting, too: the railroad running down 11th Avenue. That’s a full-on freight train, not a trolley line. I assume this was the New York Central serving the meatpacking district and Manhattan manufacturing. Did this line run until the High Line was built? Is there any other knowledge available about it, please?

    Another fascinating post – thank you!!!

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