A POWERHOUSE IN NEED OF A POWERHOUSE
Why the Hudson River Powerhouse Needs You!
Alyssa Bishop by Tyler Malone
What stays and what goes? This may be the hardest question we have to answer, both as individuals and as a society. The question fascinates us, perhaps because of the difficulty we have in answering it. It really is hard to know what to save. This is one of the reasons so many people tune into the TV show Hoarders. Not that everyone is a hoarder, but everyone can at least understand the basic impulse behind it, even if disgusted by it when taken to certain extremes. Saving things is as important as getting rid of other things (which inevitably makes room for new things). Both impulses are essential to continue to progress. So whether looking at a hoarder’s house or a cluttered cultural capital of the world–as New York City undoubtedly is–the question remains the same: What stays and what goes?
Space is the issue: as we know, it is not unlimited. With a finite area, real estate becomes nearly priceless. Yet if we gave everything to the highest bidder, the highest bidder would almost always inevitably destroy the old to bring in the new (and new revenue), and we would lose not only some great beautiful things that give us aesthetic pleasure, but also our connection to our collective past. New is good, but so is old–we mustn’t forget that. This is why landmark status is important. Obviously every building in New York City can’t be afforded landmark status–though many may have adequate reason to fight for it–because we do need new architecture and new innovation. The city must continue to grow to thrive as a cultural capital, but a cultural capital also can’t cut off its historical roots, destroying the things that made it great to begin with. There needs to be a delicate balance. We need to be honest with ourselves and ask: What stays and what goes?
The Hudson River Powerhouse is one such thing for which the argument to save has been made. Those making that argument have banded together and formed The Hudson River Powerhouse Group–a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting for landmark status for the Powerhouse. The Hudson River Powerhouse Group was founded when Jimmy Finn and Paul Kelterborn, who used to jog by the magnificent building daily, discovered it was a McKim, Mead & White design that was sadly not landmarked, and decided it was time to stop Con Edison–its current owners–from mistreating the building. When originally built between 1900 and 1904, the Powerhouse was an IRT powerhouse for New York City’s newly created subway system. Upon completion it was the largest powerhouse in the world, spanning an entire New York City block. That in itself makes the building fascinating, and historically important, but as the saying goes though, it’s not only the size that counts. Instead, it is the architectural beauty of the giant building that really makes it worth saving. Architect and author David Lowe once said of the exquisite McKim, Mead & White creation: “If the Woolworth Building was a Cathedral of Commerce, this is a Palace of Power.”
Still, the average New Yorker out there might honestly ask: But what is it specifically that makes the Powerhouse something to save, rather than something to go? And, anyways, what terrible threat is it facing that we must urgently save it from? I talked with the Director of Communications at the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, Alyssa Bishop, to ask just these things.
Alyssa explained with great enthusiasm: “The IRT Powerhouse has the potential to one day become NYC’s next great public space. Although it is still in use by Con Ed, changing technology could one day make it obsolete for steam production. Think about it–an entire city block. The possibilities are endless, but it could house NYC’s only year-round, rain-or-shine market like Spitalfields’ Market in London, or Event & Performance Space like the National Building Museum in Washington DC, or a Museum or Gallery Space like the Tate Modern…or all of them at the same time in one beautiful building.”
Hearing her speak of the possibilities of what the Powerhouse could inevitably become was heartening, but hearing her speak of the beautiful Beaux Arts building itself made me wonder why it’s even a question whether the Powerhouse should get landmark status. She lit up when she talked about what made it such a gorgeous landmark–aesthetically and historically–and spoke happily of the possibility of saving a piece of the legacy of, in her own words, “the renowned architects McKim, Mead and White, famous for other essential NYC buildings like the Morgan Library, the University Club and (the late) Pennsylvania Station.” The mention of the “late” Pennsylvania Station came with a tinge of sadness. She continued by predicting, “We would look back on the loss of the Hudson River Powerhouse as New Yorkers today remember the old Pennsylvania Station.” Her dread at the possibility of losing another masterpiece like the old Pennsylvania Station was palpable.
So what exactly is the threat to the Hudson River Powerhouse? Alyssa explained: “Since Con Ed bought the building in 1959, we’ve witnessed the loss of some of its greatness. Con Ed has removed all of its iconic smokestacks, the elaborate cornice and has cut multiple doorways into the facade. Unprotected by landmark status, we fear it’s only a matter of time before we lose this amazing building.”
The Landmark Commission did finally hold a hearing in July 2009 on the possibility of affording the Powerhouse landmark status, and so I asked Alyssa what it is that can be done now until the decision is made and a verdict handed down. She responded: “We wait,” and then continued, “This is, in fact, the third time the Powerhouse has been under consideration for landmark status–first in 1979 and then again in 1990. Both times it was opposed by Con Ed. We’re hoping the third time is a charm.”
But there is more to do than wait, Alyssa admitted: “In the meantime, our goal as a not-for-profit organization is to raise awareness for the building and to inspire a reimagination of the building for future generations. It’s a slow process, but we’ve been talking to as many New Yorkers who will listen and will hopefully generate enough interest to reach the mayor’s office. We have a lot of work to do and are using this ‘waiting’ time to start some exciting new community awareness projects like a design competition. Keep your eyes out for it.”
She adds: “And just like Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who recognized the potential in the dilapidated rail yards of the High Line, we hope the HRPG will be a testament to how anyone can make a difference in our city.”
The High Line is a great argument for Powerhouse landmark status. Alyssa Bishop, and the others at the Hudson River Powerhouse Group, see the High Line as a perfect example of what can be done to reappropriate a space without destroying it. Not long ago it too was in disrepair and was possibly going to be torn down, and then some people banded together and forced the city and its citizens to look at the space from a different angle and see it in a different light. Now it is arguably the most interesting and innovative park space in New York City thanks to the work of those at the Friends of the High Line.
Too often people think a small group of individuals banded together still can’t get things done. They assume that the only way to make a difference is to have a lot of money or to have a lot of clout. Why is it that we always assume we need a real powerhouse behind a cause in order to make a difference? Sometimes a group of informed and inspired people ready to be active and not willing to go unheard, as the Friends of the High Line showed, can be a force to be reckoned with. They can be all the power they need.
The Hudson River Powerhouse needs saving, and it needs your support in order to be saved. The powerhouse that the Powerhouse is in need of is you: you as an informed New Yorker, as someone who wants to recycle and reappropriate rather than destroy, who acknowledges the need for the old as well as the new, who struggles with that question: What stays and what goes?
Let’s all answer together: The Hudson River Powerhouse STAYS!
The Hudson River Powerhouse Group was started by Jimmy Finn and Paul Kelterborn and is working diligently to attain landmark status for the Hudson River Powerhouse, located at 59th Street on 11th and 12th Avenues.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group
Design by Marie Havens
Hudson River Powerhouse Blueprint, Courtesy of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group
Hudson River Powerhouse Interior: North and South Halls Sketch, Courtesy of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group
Hudson River Powerhouse Present-Day Interior, Courtesy of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group