New York Times: A Push to Make a Con Ed Steam Plant a Landmark

Thomas K. Duane

July 09, 2009

By Libby Nelson

The former IRT powerhouse first caught Jimmy Finn’s eye as he jogged along the West Side Highway.

The Beaux-Arts building at 58th Street and 11th Avenue had begun to look increasingly out of place as more steel and glass structures rose up along the Hudson River, Mr. Finn, who had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina with a master’s degree in urban planning, began to wonder if the ornate building, one of Con Edison’s three active steam plants in Manhattan, was a landmark.

It wasn’t. So during the summer of 2007, he started a push to make it one, founding the Hudson River Powerhouse Group with Paul Kelterborn, another urban planner. A Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on the group’s proposal to designate the building as a landmark will be held Tuesday.

The steam plant, completed in 1904 and built to power IRT subways, was designed by McKim, Mead & White, the renowned architectural firm that also designed the old Pennsylvania Station, the Municipal Building and the Morgan Library.

Supporters of the effort say the building is an architectural gem that could be torn down or changed beyond recognition if it is not protected. Con Ed argues that the plant is still in use and operations could be constrained if it gained landmark status.

“It’s just an amazing, ornate building,” Mr. Finn said. “If this was Cleveland or Detroit, we could have had this building landmarked 10 times over. In New York, anything worth doing is going to take a lot longer.”

The Hudson River Powerhouse Group’s proposal has gained support from predictable corners, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Friends of the High Line, a group that has helped with the powerhouse preservation effort since it began. It also has the backing of two Manhattan community boards, State Senator Thomas K. Duane and City Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer.

The steam plant, which takes up a full city block, powered the subway system until 1959, when it was sold to Con Ed. Two decades later, the first attempt was made to designate the building as a landmark. That effort failed, as did a second in 1990, both opposed by Con Ed.

Chris Olert, a spokesman for Con Ed, said steam produced at the plant and at two others on the island is used for heating, air-conditioning and sterilization in large buildings, including the Empire State Building, the United Nations and Stuyvesant Town.

“It’s an active steam plant, and we want it to continue to be that,” Mr. Olert said. “Due to the equipment that’s housed there, it’s inappropriate to landmark, as that could limit the operations of the active plant.”

Construction and repairs are permitted on buildings that have been designated as landmarks, but they require permits that must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Such a process could delay maintenance, Mr. Olert said.

Both the exterior and interior of the building are in good condition, though the terra-cotta exterior needs washing, Mr. Finn said. The steam plant has been altered over the years: Con Ed has removed the six original smokestacks and the cornice.

If designating the steam plant as a landmark is successful, some advocates have ideas of how it could be used, citing examples as diverse as the Tate Modern gallery in London, the San Francisco Ferry Building and Gotham Hall in New York.

But Mr. Finn adds that he does not want to get ahead of the process.

“We’re focused on landmarking right now,” he said.