MOVE TO REPURPOSE OLD POWERHOUSE

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Preservationists’ efforts to landmark a West Side powerhouse got a boost when Community Board 7’s Parks and Preservation Committee voted to support the move at its meeting last week.

Several preservation groups, including Landmark West, the Riverside South Planning Corporation and the Powerhouse Group, gathered to speak about the historic significance of the building.

The structure, the former Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Powerhouse at West 59th Street and 11th Avenue was built in 1904 to provide electricity for New York City’s first subway system. The powerhouse is currently owned by Con Edison, which has obtained a permit to remove the building’s last remaining smokestack.
Elizabeth Clark, a spokesperson for Con Edison, said in a statement, “The stack has not been in use for 16 years. Its condition is deteriorating and that is a safety issue for the community.”

The Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse at West 59th Street and 11th Avenue. Photos By Andrew Schwartz

The Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse at West 59th Street and 11th Avenue. Photos By Andrew Schwartz

But Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West and a professor at Columbia University, argued that the smokestack should be kept. Her students, from Columbia’s master’s program in historic preservation, have been studying the powerhouse since the beginning of the year and believe the smokestack is one of the original five built in 1904.

“Smokestack number five is arguably the most powerful surviving architectural element that speaks directly to the history of the building and to the original industrial purpose of the magnificent IRT powerhouse,” said Emilie Evans, one of the students.

Wood compared the powerhouse to other monumental structures in the city, including the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central Station.

“We’re lucky that the powerhouse survives when so many other buildings like it have been lost. The growth of the surrounding neighborhood opens up exciting possibilities for its future. It deserves to be protected as an official landmark,” Wood said.

The issue will now go in front of Community Board 7’s full board on April 7. Community Board 4, where the powerhouse is located, has already voted to support the move.

If the powerhouse were designated a landmark, the Riverside South Planning Corporation hopes to use the interior as a public space.

“We’re working on a plan for adaptive reuse of the interior that’s tied to the concept of cogeneration to replace the power that the plant currently produces,” said the corporation’s president, Paul Elston.

Another idea is to turn the powerhouse into a museum, similar to the Tate Gallery in London, which is housed in an old power station.

Both Landmark West and the Riverside South Planning Corporation have written letters to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking it to designate the powerhouse as a landmark. Council Member Gale Brewer and State Sen. Tom Duane have also sent letters of support.

The commission has considered designating the powerhouse as a landmark two times already, once in 1979 and again in 1990. A spokesperson said the issue was being looked at.

“The building remains under active review and consideration for landmark designation. No hearing has been scheduled,” spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon said.

Like everyone else, Evans hopes the issue will be resolved soon, fearing that the building, if left unprotected, will be “vulnerable to further inappropriate alterations and possibly demolition.”

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