A once-striking architectural example of form and function, the circa-1904 substation on West 96th Street, also known as Substation No. 14, will soon be demolished.
This long-abandoned limestone structure was one of eight original substations that helped power the city's first subway line (the IRT Broadway line) and itself was powered by the coal-burning IRT powerhouse on 59th Street, which was designed by McKim Mead & White (best known for the old Pennsylvania Station, and some of its surrounding structures). Both buildings still stand today, but only the latter is landmarked.
"Substations are part of the power supply network for the subway, and this network was built before the modern power grid was developed," Jodi Shapiro, curator at the New York Transit Museum, told WNYC/Gothamist. And almost all of these substations were phased out around three decades ago—Substation No. 14 (located at 264-266 West 96th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue) has been offline since 1990. At that time, the MTA transferred the station to the City of New York, and it’s currently administered by NYC Housing Preservation & Development (HPD).
Here's John B. McDonald on the roof of No. 14; he's the contractor who oversaw the building of the New York City Subway from 1900 to 1904.
"All of the original eight IRT substations were adorned with Beaux-Arts facades that allowed the structures to blend seamlessly into the landscape," Shapiro said.
It went up during the nationwide City Beautiful movement, which came with the message that cities "should aspire to aesthetic value for their residents." According to the New York Preservation Archive Project, the movement also "promoted the idea that beautifying the city is beneficial [and] spurred the creation of the Municipal Art Society in New York City."
The substations were all approximately 50' x 100' feet, and according to Shapiro, "featured inverted skylights, winding staircases with iron filigree, switchboard galleries, and rotaries lined in two rows and recessed into the floor so that their lower halves were obscured. Tiny rooms provided access and were linked by an underground network of narrow passageways and electrical closets."
Once Substation No. 14 is cleared out (the HPD has not yet responded to our request for a timeline), a 23-story residential building will go up in its place. Untapped NY reports that "the developer, Fetner Properties, is partnering with Settlement Housing Fund, a non-profit housing developer," which plans for around 40% of the units in the new structure to be affordable housing for seniors.
Of those eight original IRT substations, only one is still online and providing power to the subway, the Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line, also known as Substation No. 17, the Dyckman-Hillside Substation.