The Powerhouse at 100

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008/09 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here.

Upon its opening in 1908 the Hudson and Manhattan Powerhouse was heralded by the New York Times as “one of the greatest engineering feats that has ever been accomplished.” Enduring decades of neglect after its closure, local kids called it “Frankenstein’s Castle.” And as the structure enters its second century, developers, the city, and the Powerhouse’s neighbors are pinning their hopes on its potential as a motor for the continued revitalization of the neighborhood that bears its name.

The function of the Powerhouse as the power source of a historic underwater railway — the precursor to today’s PATH lines to New York — was very much in keeping with the spirit of the Gilded Age, which had come crashing to its bitter end just a few years before the building’s construction was completed. But its exaggerated design was something new: sculpted Romanesque features and flowery embellishments were replaced by brick and steel, soaring to an astounding height and lit by an enormous skylight facing the wildly busy Hudson River.

The last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th had been a period of rapid industrial and commercial growth for Jersey City, and hopes ran high that the new railway would lead the city definitively out of Manhattan’s shadow. And as the commute between New York and Jersey City became dramatically shorter, the potential for real estate gains was hardly lost on property owners and would-be developers.

Regardless of the small revolution it made possible, the Powerhouse’s cutting-edge technology was soon obsolete, and in 1929 it ceased to provide power for the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. In the years following, the H&M Railroad and its successor, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation, used the Powerhouse mostly for storage space. Virtually all of the original machinery was discarded or used for scrap. By the late 1960s the building was all but abandoned, and dilapidation set in.

Over the next thirty years or so, the Powerhouse was the subject of sporadic attention: in the early ’80s, as part of a state-commissioned survey of architecturally significant places; in 1988, as the hub of a proposed commercial, retail and entertainment center; and in 1990, as the subject of a thoughtful and rather prescient piece in the New York Times by the architectural historian Christopher Gray.* But these were subplots in the story of the Powerhouse’s life, and they were not enough by themselves to save it from ruin. Because of its tricky ownership — the building is jointly held by the City of Jersey City and the Port Authority — and its years of disuse, ideas for how to redevelop the site have consistently met formidable obstacles.

In 1999, at a time when the Port Authority was considering the Powerhouse’s demolition, then-mayor Bret Schundler’s chief of staff Tom Gallagher was quoted in The New York Times saying, “It’s a blight and it’s going to become an obstacle to further development [downtown].” It was at this moment that John Gomez, founder of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy (JCLC), began his efforts to save the building by creating public awareness and lobbying the state and federal government to accord it landmark status. Thus began the latest chapter in the Powerhouse’s story: its preservation and the continued debate over how to proceed toward the site’s redevelopment.

Gomez and the JCLC succeeded in placing the Powerhouse on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, ensuring that the building will not be razed and must be preserved in a manner true to its original form. In 2002, a study by the Urban Land Institute coined the name of the Powerhouse Arts District, suggesting that the neighborhood’s development be centered on the Powerhouse. The city’s ongoing effort to foster a vibrant arts community around now-destroyed 111 First Street by way of its Work And Live District Overlay (WALDO) had not been as successful as was hoped, and the City Council’s approval in subsequent years of spot zoning for proposed high-rise residential towers drummed up a great deal of consternation within the community.

By 2003, the city was in negotiations with Preferred Real Estate Investments, a developer with preliminary plans to build offices and retail at the Powerhouse site, along with a public art gallery. Negotiations broke down late in the game, reportedly due to disagreements over who would pay for the relocation of an electrical transformer yard on the grounds. These transformers, which supply power to the PATH trains, constitute a major redevelopment roadblock that has not yet been resolved. Relocation costs have been cited anywhere between 20 and 30 million dollars, a cost the Port Authority and potential developers each maintain should be borne by the other.

Despite this obstacle, another developer came hot on Preferred’s heels. In 2006, the city designated the Cordish Companies of Baltimore as the developer of the Powerhouse site. Cordish has experience working with municipalities to repurpose abandoned powerhouses; their redevelopment of a similarly unused power plant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was completed in 1999. But there are concerns that the neon-flashy approach taken by Cordish in Baltimore — which incorporates big-box entertainment venues such as ESPN Zone and Hard Rock Cafe — would be out of place and unwelcome in the Powerhouse Arts District. Notwithstanding these worries, and the daunting prospect of moving those pesky transformers, Cordish is optimistic about the project. The company has stated publicly that it plans to “make every effort to respect the [arts] community,” and in any case it is required to respect the constraints mandated by the National Park Service for registered historic sites. For their part, John Gomez and current JCLC president Joshua Parkhurst are pleased with the selection of Cordish.

Christopher Gray’s brief 1990 New York Times article has become something like canon among Powerhouse enthusiasts: its echoes can be heard in conversations, articles, and message board posts about the building. The piece is a reverie about the “elegant surprise” the building embodied in “what seem[ed] like a forgotten neighborhood.” For a while there, it seemed as though the Powerhouse itself had been forgotten in favor of the new arrivals to the neighborhood — slapdash high-rises full of condos, offices, and retail.

But Gray’s piece is something else, too: it’s a manual for reading the story of the Powerhouse’s long life and the late-breaking efforts to preserve it. Gray reminds us that it’s not enough to see that “the brick is cleaned, windows replaced, weeds cleaned out and a shopping mall or arts center is installed under a rubric like ‘The Power Plant.'” An effort to preserve the Powerhouse must honor “the raw, messy life cycle of the building — its design, its function, its obsolescence, its decay.” The continued life and vibrancy of the Powerhouse, and the neighborhood that surrounds it, depends as much upon our memories of its past as on our hopes for its future.

* “The Hudson Tubes Powerhouse; A Majestic, Aging Giant,” the New York Times, November 18, 1990.