(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)
The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)
Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.
Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.
What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.
For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.
The Yonkers Power Plant
The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.
One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.
The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.
But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?
The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.
The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)
By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.
Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.
On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.
Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.
But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.
The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.
I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.
From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.
(Click here for Part 2.)