Urban Explorations

I did a bit of urban exploration the last couple of days. On Friday evening, as promised, I walked around the city taking photos of neon signs. True conversation from one part of the photo shoot—

Man with Russian accent smoking a cigar: Why are you so interested in this sign?

Me:  I love neon signs.

Man with Russian accent smoking a cigar (looking at me like I’m nuts): Oh. OK.

Me:  Also, it’s the 100th anniversary of neon signs.

Man with Russian accent smoking a cigar (breaking into a big grin): Oh! Happy birthday, neon!

It was a cold night and I was wearing work shoes instead of tromping around shoes, so the chill and a blister conspired to cut off my expedition after a couple of hours, but I managed to get a bunch of good photos of signs in the Upper East Side, Midtown, and Times Square. A mere sliver of the signs in NYC, and I haven’t even uploaded all the photos yet, but here are a few for you now. I’ll report back when I’ve had a chance to hit up some of the other fantastic neon in the greater New York metropolitan area (suggestions gratefully accepted!)

Today I trekked up to Yonkers with Paul on another quest: exploring the abandoned Glenwood Power Plant. It was built in 1906 (along with a sister plant in the Bronx) by New York Central to provide power for the electrification of the train tracks (via the a new invention: the third rail) going into the new Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. It was designed by Minnesota-based architectural office Reed & Stern, who later collaborated with Warren & Wetmore on the design of Grand Central Station.

After only 30 years the railroad no longer needed to run its own power stations due to the increased capacity of regular power stations, and in 1936 the Glenwood Power Plant was sold to ConEd (the Bronx plant was demolished). By the 1960s the Glenwood plant couldn’t keep up with the capacity of newer plants (like the Indian Point nuclear power plant) and was decommissioned. It’s no longer owned by ConEd and is apparently for sale. There was talk recently of the plant being incorporated into fancy-pants condos, but as far as I can tell that plan has been scuttled.

[Paul's photos are over here.] What an amazing place. It’s pretty stripped down, of course, and there’s some graffiti and whatnot, but the building is still beautiful. The bones are strong  and enough details and relics remain to evoke its past life:

There are two big buildings, with the turbine hall (shown above) being the more dramatic. Accessing it involved crossing a rusty catwalk of a bridge (and I turned out to be a bit more afraid of heights than I remembered), though the biggest gaps had been helpfully planked over by past visitors. Emerging into the vast expanse of the main hall, well lit even on a cloudy day like today with huge, graceful windows, is impressive. The plant’s location on (and into) the edges of the Hudson River makes for some spectacular vistas, and from the roof you can see all the way to Manhattan. Windows are broken, metal is rusted, piles of junk litter the floors, and the building is silent and frozen in an advanced state of rigor mortis, but there’s still somehow the feeling of life with the play of light on walls, with the river outside, and with the evocation of so much past clamor and motion in that gigantic space.

Can you imagine a power plant today being built with so much lovely detail, with huge windows, or with such graceful proportions? I can’t. There are a few notable infrastructure projects from the recent past, but none in the league of the Glenwood Power Plant, and we are the poorer for it.



This entry was posted on Sunday, December 5th, 2010 and is filed under architecture, urbanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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