Thursday, August 2, 2012

The History of Preserving History: Penn Station rally, 50 years later

Protesters in front of Pennsylvania Station on Aug. 2, 1962.
Photo: Eddie Hausner/The New York Times
Fifty years ago today, the preservation movement was effectively born.  On August 2nd, 1962, before Pennsylvania Station, New Yorkers rallied to save a threatened architectural icon.  

Though the the battle was lost (Penn Station was demolished in 1963) the war was not!  The rally to save Penn Station drew attention to the urgent need for a formal regulatory process by which our city's architectural resources would be protected.  

And thus was born the Landmarks Law and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Today, another McKim, Mead & White-deigned icon is at risk!  The firm is also responsible for the monumental the IRT Powerhouse.  But like Penn Station before, the building's lack of protection means it is constantly at risk of inappropriate modifications and, worse still, demolition.   

TAKE ACTION!  Help us ensure the Powerhouse does not fall victim to the save fate as Penn Station.

The architects Peter Samton and Diana Goldstein can tell you exactly where they were a half century ago, at 5 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1962: out on Seventh Avenue, tilting at windmills. 

Pennsylvania Station, the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece, was doomed. They knew it. But they weren’t going to let it go down undefended. With Norval White, Jordan Gruzen, Elliott Willensky and others, they assembled an impromptu resistance brigade known as Agbany, for Action Group for Better Architecture in New York.

On that 86-degree summer evening 50 years ago, commuters were greeted by the sight of more than 100 buttoned-down and white-gloved protesters marching around the colossal colonnade at the station’s entrance.

“Save Penn Station,” their signs said, in nicely formed letters. (Architects. Of course.) “Don’t Sell Our City Short.” “Save Our Heritage.” “Action Not Apathy.”

Philip Johnson was impeccably present, in the company of the peerless Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, who would soon be its president. There was Aline B. Saarinen, the widow of Eero Saarinen, who had been until 1959 an associate art critic at The New York Times. Agbany counted Eleanor Roosevelt, Stewart Alsop, Jane Jacobs and Norman Mailer among its supporters, along with many of the most respected names in architecture and architectural criticism ...

For the full article by David Dunlap, click here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Innovation Inspiration: "Tate Modern Gets More Raw"

Could the McKim, Mead & White-designed IRT Powerhouse be our own Tate Modern-on-the-Hudson?  The comparisons between these two monumental structures have been numerous, and many have looked to the Tate as inspiration for a possible alternative use for its New York City cousin.  Whatever the future holds for the IRT Powerhouse, the conversion of the Bankside Power Station to the Tate Modern is proof positive of the incredible possibilities.

 The underground former tanks at the Tate Modern, as pictured in the New York Times.

From the New York Times' "Tate Modern Gets More Raw":

When the Tate Modern opened its sleek glass doors in May 2000, its directors and curators expected around two million people in the first year — an ambitious number for a contemporary art museum. 

Five million came.

To date, more than 56 million visitors have passed through the massive industrial spaces of the Tate Modern, transformed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron from a disused power station into a cultural center that has altered the nature and expectation of the museum-going experience, making it as much a tourist attraction as an art destination.

On Wednesday, the Tate Modern will open a new set of doors. They lead off the Turbine Hall into three enormous underground concrete cylinders, former oil tanks that once powered the refinery and held a million gallons of the viscous black gold. Known as the Tanks, they will become the first exhibition spaces in a major museum permanently dedicated to exhibiting performance, installation and experimental film. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Old, Massive, Illustrious and Somehow Overlooked

"Its delicate Renaissance-style exterior could just as well have clothed an opera house, although the five colossal stacks gave it away." 

Photo: New York City Municipal Archives, via NY Times
Preservation groups are circling the deliciously decorated Con Ed powerhouse at 11th Avenue and 59th Street, as the 1904 structure, designed by Stanford White, nudges up for a third time to landmark designation. At the same time, a similar grand structure sits alone without fuss or bother, just working hard in elegant industrial simplicity ...

Click here to read the full article by Christopher Gray, in which he looks both at the West Side's IRT Powerhouse and, across the island, at an East River contemporary.

Monday, April 16, 2012

IRT Powerhouse and six other Empire State heritage sites to be honored; tickets available!

Seven to Save cocktail party
Monday, April 23, 2012 / 6PM to 8PM
The River Club, 447 East 52nd Street
Click here to purchase your tickets

In one week, the Preservation League of New York State will reveal its entire Seven to Save list of endangered sites for 2012-2013. This includes Manhattan's monumental former IRT Powerhouse, located on Eleventh Avenue at 59th Street in Manhattan! Join with preservationists from across the city and the state as we salute these heritage sites and kick-off efforts to secure their futures.

From inside the historic River Club, enjoy views of the James Renwick, Jr.-designed "Hospital Ruin" from 1856 (a Seven to Save selected site!) and the adjacent 2012 Louis Kahn-designed Four Freedoms Park, now under construction at Roosevelt Island. The evening's program will include:

                  6PM to 8PM: Cocktail Reception
                         6:30PM: Presentation of Seven to Save
                                      Remarks by honored guest Ambassador William vanden Heuvel,
                                      Chairman, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC

We hope to see you there! To read the League's announcement of the former IRT Powerhouse's listing among the Seven to Save, click here.
for action steps and more...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

New York's "Temple of Power": the 59th Street Powerstation

Article via

Standing on the shore of the Hudson River it seems to declare, “Industry!” “Ambition!” It is a majestic symbol of the City-Beautiful era and modernity.  Its compelling industrial beauty has inspired its most inspired definition yet: 

“The building, a marriage of convenience, a modern metal shed with the face of an aging actress, the utilitarian made beautiful, is our city’s Temple of Power.” 
                                - Mosette Broderick, professor at New York University, 
                                  author of Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, 
                                  Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age 

For all of these reasons and more the Preservation League of New York State has named Manhattan’s former Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Powerhouse to its list of the Empire State’s most threatened historic resources, Seven to Save. The prestigious designation bodes well for the future of the Beaux Arts masterpiece.

Click here to read the full article by Maria Gorshin, via Untapped Cities.

Slicing through the IRT Powerhouse in section, this image shows the interior layout at the time of the
building's planning and construction, according to the Street Railway Journal of Oct. 8, 1904.
Image via 2009 Columbia Univ. studio report

Monday, April 2, 2012

Preservationists Steamed! IRT Powerhouse House Makes Seven to Save List


Preservationists Steamed! 

IRT Powerhouse House Makes Seven to Save List

The Preservation League of New York State has added the former New York IRT Powerhouse building to its Seven to Save list. Activists hope the recognition will help open the facility to the public, wresting at least part of it from the hands of Con Ed, which uses but a fraction of the grand McKim, Mead & White-designed building for steam generation.
Click here for full article...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Preservation League adds IRT Powerhouse to Seven to Save list of endangered places for 2012-13


Preservation League of New York State
(contact info below)

ALBANY, March 26, 2012 – The Preservation League of New York State has named Manhattan’s former IRT Powerhouse, located on Eleventh Avenue at 59th Street in Manhattan, to its list of the Empire State’s most threatened historic resources, Seven to Save.

The Powerhouse holds a unique position in the history, life and physical fabric of New York City. It was constructed to generate power for the city’s first subway line, which opened in 1904 and revolutionized transportation between the city’s neighborhoods. This massive structure—occupying an entire city block—stands as a symbol of modernity, on a par with great public buildings such as the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1902, the IRT hired Stanford White of the firm McKim, Mead and White, among the most prestigious architects of their day, to design this Beaux-Arts masterpiece.

“Since 1999, Seven to Save has mobilized community leaders and decision-makers to take action when historic resources are threatened,” said Jay DiLorenzo, President of the Preservation League. “A Seven to Save designation from the League delivers invaluable technical assistance, fosters increased media coverage and public awareness, and opens the door to grant assistance for endangered properties.”

The rapidly growing waterfront neighborhood surrounding the Powerhouse presents both opportunities and challenges for the building’s preservation. Most of New York’s early power stations have been demolished, including four operated by Consolidated Edison (the current owner of the IRT Powerhouse) between 2005 and 2008. By virtue of its architecture and pivotal location, however, the Powerhouse has captured the imagination of developers and investors, who recognize its potential for vibrant adaptive use as a mixed-use space, with its energy functions relocated to a more efficient, sustainable facility. The inclusion of the Powerhouse on the League’s Seven to Save list will help raise awareness of this building’s significance and facilitate discussion around creative solutions for preserving the building. To foster the conversation, a blog called “Save the IRT Powerhouse” has been launched at

According to Samuel G. White, architect and great-grandson of Stanford White, “The powerhouse is a perfect illustration of Stanford White’s determination to transform every corner of New York from a featureless sea of brownstone into a capital worthy of a Renaissance prince. Here, hierarchy, scale, proportion, color, and ornament are harnessed to celebrate the power—not of a despot, however enlightened—but of technology in the service of civilization. Take a pair of binoculars over to Eleventh Avenue and enjoy the feast!”

“At the turn of the 20th century, New York City stretched out from the Battery to Hamilton Heights. But how to transport the population from the top to the bottom?” asked Mosette Broderick, professor at New York University and author of Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age. “The IRT was created to move people rapidly beneath the streets and, on the forlorn bank of the Hudson River gridded by railroad tracks rose its power supply. The building, a marriage of convenience, a modern metal shed with the face of an aging actress, the utilitarian made beautiful, is our city’s Temple of Power.”

Douglast Durst, Chairman of The Durst Oranization, said, “The IRT Powerhouse is beautiful, compelling and historically significant building that deserves preservation and protection.”

The inclusion of the IRT Powerhouse on the Seven to Save list provides the opportunity for the League to work with local advocates to protect the building and its surroundings. “With this program, we provide targeted support to seven of New York’s most important and endangered historic resources,” said Erin Tobin, the Preservation League’s eastern regional director for technical and grant programs. “Whether sites are threatened by insensitive, ineffective or insufficient public policies, general neglect, and, in some cases, outright demolition, we have a proven record of working with community advocates to save a number of significant properties.”

Since 1999, publicity and advocacy resulting from Seven to Save designation has led to the rehabilitation and reopening of the Oswego City Public Library, the rebirth of Montauk Manor on Long Island, and the rededication of the once-abandoned George Harvey Justice Building in Binghamton along with successes at several other locations.

The Preservation League of New York State is a not-for-profit membership organization founded in 1974. The League invests in people and projects that champion the essential role of preservation in community revitalization, sustainable economic growth, and the protection of New York’s historic buildings and landscapes. It leads advocacy, economic development, and education programs all across the state.

FROM: Preservation League of New York State
44 Central Avenue
Albany NY 12206-3002

CONTACTS: Colleen M. Ryan, Director of Communications
Preservation League of New York State
518-462-5658 ext. 17;

Kate Wood, Executive Director

Hudson River Powerhouse Group to become working committee of LANDMARK WEST!

The Hudson River Powerhouse Group is a New York not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the landmarking, restoration, and adaptive reuse of McKim Mead & White's IRT Powerhouse on Manhattan's West Side. The HRPG focuses on educating the public about the history of the Powerhouse, gathering support for its landmark designation, and nurturing creative designs for a reimagined Powerhouse of the 21st Century. 

Begun as a two-man effort, HRPG will now become a working committee of LANDMARK WEST!, a nonprofit community organization working since 1985 to preserve the architectural heritage of Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why Save the Powerhouse?

PSA video featuring Samuel White, Barry Bergdoll, Robert Hammond, Basil Walter, Kate Wood, and more...
"Powerhouse In Film", via Hudson River Powerhouse Group

Click here for answers to Powerhouse landmarking FAQ's.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Columbia University Study

In 2009, a graduate studio in Columbia University's Historic Preservation Master's Degree program completed a study of the Powerhouse.  Under the leadership of LW! Executive Director and Columbia adjunct professor Kate Wood, the students focused on the Powerhouse's history as a mode by which to explore its potential future.

To read the Columbia studio report, click here.

Looking Back: An appeal to the LPC to stop ConEd destruction of Powerhouse smokestack

Dear Chair Tierney:

As you know, a broad coalition of experts, organizations and elected officials has expressed strong support for preserving the former Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse, designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White and built in 1904 to provide electricity for New York City’s first subway system. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has twice considered designating the structure, in 1979 and 1990; the building is “calendared," a landmark in fact but not yet law.

Now, there is a new urgency calling for the Commission’s swift, definitive action to landmark this building. The current owner, Consolidated Edison, has begun to demolish the sole surviving 1904 smokestack, a potent symbol of the building's legacy as the engine for "a new era of electrified urban transportation, illustrating the power of technology to improve urban life" (from the Commission’s own significance statement for the IRT Powerhouse).

Regrettably, it appears that the Commission signed off on the demolition of Stack #5 last year, possibly without realizing its provenance as the last remaining original stack. I understand that ConEd claims the stack poses a public safety risk.  But, were the Powerhouse an officially designated landmark, as it deserves to be, such a significant alteration would require careful review and exploration of alternatives by the full Commission.  As it is, the building is vulnerable to continual erosion that may ultimately undermine its landmark integrity.

Please act right away to preserve the IRT Powerhouse.

Kate Wood
Executive Director