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Philadelphia’s abandoned power plants look like steampunk temples

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New photobook Palazzos of Power explores the neoclassical grandeur of these artifacts of the early electric age

Monumental structures that tower over the industrial landscape in Philadelphia, the aging central power stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company look like Metropolis meets Ancient Greece, ornate temples of stacked brick, soaring arches, and early industrial grit. But these hulking structures hide a more interesting backstory about how design can be enlisted to shape public perception.

“I looked at these buildings and thought, on the surface, they’re incredible structures, enormous and beautifully designed,” says Aaron Wunsch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in historic preservation. “They were designed to look like public monuments, which was strange. There’s a weird juxtaposition of civic building and factory floor.”

In Palazzos of Power, a forthcoming book about the history of these structures featuring striking black-and-white photos of Joseph Elliot, Wunsch breaks down the history of these early 20th century generators, surprisingly well-designed industrial landmarks that say a lot about how architecture can be both an aesthetic asset and public relations.

Mostly built between 1903 and the tail end of WWI, these stations were the work of engineer William C.L. Eglin and architect John T. Windrim, who took Beaux Arts as a primary influence when drafting these coal-powered temples to modernity. While Wunsch says none of the stations were necessarily groundbreaking designs, they did recall many of the best aspects of neoclassical style. Richmond Station reminds him of the long-lost Penn Station.

“Windrim is an expert in functional design, which leads to a sort of ‘stage-set classicism.’” says Wunsch. “It’s not radical innovation. But what makes it exciting is that this style is getting applied to buildings without a classical precedent.”

Windrim’s designs reflected the messaging of the Philadelphia Power Company (PECO), which, in the early Progressive Era, was viewed warily by a citizenry suspect of trusts, monopolies, and the industrialists that controlled a key utility of modern life. Located in an inner industrial belt of the city, outside of downtown, the buildings were nonetheless large billboards for PECO, meant to communicate to anyone living in Philadelphia that this company was an upstanding company serving the public good.

“These buildings had to pitch themselves to people,” says Wunsch. “The sublime classicism of these structures, all owned by a powerful private company, are meant to convince others that they’re in some sense public buildings.’”

A few decades after construction, these plants were converted to burn oil, which, along with a move to turn many into substations, extended their useful lifespan. By the ‘90s, all of them had ceased operation, which was why it was so exciting for Wunsch to discover them while working on the Historic American Building Survey in the late ‘90s. Many still had remnants of a time when they were still generating power, including old time cards scattered across the floors.

As the Philadelphia has expanded, many of these plants, once on the city’s edge, are now potential targets for redevelopment. Delaware Station was recently purchased by a developer looking to build an events space. While the retro flourishes and imposing design offers numerous chances for renovation or rebirth, Wunsch hopes readers of the book can appreciate the scale and story behind these early 20th century relics.

“These plants formed the network for modern life,” he says. “Like the server farms of today, they’re incredible modern utilities.”