Battersea But Better

Battersea Power Station | Photo: acd40

London’s iconic Battersea Power Station, the largest brick building in Europe and long elusive site of urban development, went into default yesterday, the Guardian reported. Battersea, on the Thames, is a Gotham City version of Philadelphia Electric Company’s elegant concrete palazzos designed by John Windrim–among them the Delaware Station at Penn Treaty Park and Richmond Station, three miles up river. Battersea once supplied a fifth of London’s power.

But without a roof, Battersea, which can be had for $780 million, is in danger of becoming a very expensive shell.

Like Battersea, the empty Delaware and Richmond generating stations were built into the river bank. Their power, and grace, was meant to be observed from afar.

PE, explains Aaron Wunsch, a lecturer in architectural history in the graduate program in historic preservation at Penn Design, wanted to safeguard its monopoly through civic engagement and a strong–looming, intrinsic–corporate image. For this the company employed architecture. “While PE’s substations remained quietly contextual,” writes Wunsch in the essay “Palazzos of Power: Early Central Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company,” “its power plants became boldly theatrical. Wrapping modern equipment in Roman garb, they rationalized materials handling, improved worker safety, and stressed comfort as well as control.”

The stations, writes Wunsch, “are stalwart, eye-catching, and strange.” Like Battersea, but better.

What they aren’t is protected by law like Battersea. Richmond Generating Station was nominated for the Philadelphia Historic Register, but the Historical Commission voted against putting it on the list after current owner Exelon flexed some political muscle. Battersea sits on an incredibly valuable piece of real estate, and its protected status is all that has kept the wrecking ball at bay. Richmond most likely still stands because demolition would be incredibly expensive, and present owner Exelon may not know what else to do with the power station.

While a patch of Delaware riverfront in the shadow of the Betsy Ross bridge in unlikely to command $780 million, redevelopment isn’t completely unthinkable. A Windrim-designed power plant in Chester, PA from the same era was turned into  offices in 2001. One option that’s worth exploring is turning it into a museum like Eastern State Penitentiary-what’s called a “stabilized ruin.” The photographer Vincent Feldman calls Richmond Generating Philadelphia’s own Baths of Caracalla. If we have built anything in America to rival the splendor of ancient Rome, it’s the Richmond Generating Station. Let’s hope this “Palazzo of Power” is still around to inspire awe and wonder two millennia from now.

Richmond Generating Station | Photo: Peter Woodall

Peter Woodall contributed to this article.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
New Record Pressing Plant Drops The Needle In Old Bread Factory

New Record Pressing Plant Drops The Needle In Old Bread Factory

July 15, 2019  |  News

The vinyl revival is coming to Lawncrest where a new record pressing plant is setting up shop in the old Bond Bread building. Bryan Bierman has the scoop > more

After The Trocadero’s Closing, Preservationists Ponder Saving The Interior

After The Trocadero’s Closing, Preservationists Ponder Saving The Interior

July 12, 2019  |  News

Philly's famous Trocadero Theater closed in May after 149 years of continuous use. Protections are already in place for the facade of the building, but can the interior be saved too? Kimberly Haas takes a look > more

Op-Ed: Painted Bride Art Center Mosaic A Lesson In Limits To Historic Designation

Op-Ed: Painted Bride Art Center Mosaic A Lesson In Limits To Historic Designation

July 10, 2019  |  Soapbox

Last fall the Philadelphia Historical Commission declined to legally protect a colorful mosaic, nominated by Philadelphia's Magic Garden, on the exterior of Painted Bride Arts Center in Old City. In this editorial Sharon Barr opines that the decision was the right one and unpacks the thorny issues of designating public artwork and ownership rights > more

A Crude Awakening: Explosion On The Schuylkill Brings Philly's History Of Oil Refineries Into Focus

A Crude Awakening: Explosion On The Schuylkill Brings Philly’s History Of Oil Refineries Into Focus

July 8, 2019  |  Vantage

Ed Duffy gives us a history lesson on Philadelphia's 150-year-old oil industry following the explosion, fire, and pending closure of Philadelphia Energy Solutions' oil refinery in Southwest Philly > more

Summer Break

Summer Break

July 1, 2019  |  News

Hidden City Daily is taking a short summer vacation. We'll be back on Monday, July 8. Have a great Fourth of July! > more

Rare Collection Of Early American Flags Explores The Evolution Of Old Glory

Rare Collection Of Early American Flags Explores The Evolution Of Old Glory

June 28, 2019  |  News

An antique flag dealer teamed up with the Museum of the American Revolution to put our nation's Stars and Stripes into perspective with "A New Constellation: A Collection of 13 Star Flags." Virginia Lindak has the details > more