At the dawn of the 20th century, the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) embarked on an ambitious—and treacherous—plan to expand a market for their most intangible and misunderstood product, electricity. Although many Americans avidly followed the innovations in the electricity production and transmission fields in the late 19th century–the so-called power wars pitting Thomas Edison’s General Electric Company against George Westinghouse’s Westinghouse Electrical Manufacturing Company–most Americans had only the faintest idea as to what electricity was. As Thomas Hughes has pointed out, Americans conceptualized the science of electrical power transmission with the metaphors of water power: thus “flow” and “current.” But urban America had even less understanding as to the applications and advantages of electricity. Some municipalities had began replacing gas lamps with incandescent bulbs and thanks to Frank Sprague’s invention streetcars had jettisoned the horse and were employing electricity. But in the early part of the 20th century, only the very wealthy and progressive entertained ideas of wiring a house for electric light. And industry relied mainly on their on-site powerplants to provide steam generation to run direct shaft and belt-drive pulleys.
As the uses of electricity became increasingly defined in the early 20th century, PECO sought to simultaneously expand its electricity output in the region while marketing a variety of new uses for electricity. The Company had consolidated its control of the electrical industry, purchasing smaller local generators which supplied electricity for small markets such as street lighting. According to Nicholas Wainwright’s History of the Philadelphia Electric Company, 1881-1961, after bringing National Electric into their fold, the company purchased the Kensington Electric Company in 1901 and the Delaware County Electric Company in 1918. The Delaware County Electric Company had just completed construction of an inspiring generating station at Chester. With its towering redbrick Georgian facade with its white columns bathed in incandescent light, the structure reflected the new design philosophy that utilitarian structures join the pantheon of great civic buildings: government centers, railroad terminals, and courthouses.
Another prominent feature of the Chester station was its blazing incandescent sign proclaiming “Electricity is Cheap in Chester.” While this sign’s use of incandescent light not only emphasized electricity’s low cost, another sign appearing on a substation tied greater industrial use of electricity to regional prosperity. Located on the Crosby St. substation in Chester, the sign was the brainchild of a saavy PECO regional vice president, Albert R. Granger. “…With sales of electrical merchandise in sustained and rather satisfying volume,” Granger wrote in his memoir of service with the company, “the thought occurred to some of us that we should have an electric sign, with an appropriate slogan, on our new Crosby Street substation.” After a public contest, the motto “What Chester Makes, Makes Chester,” was emblazoned in lights in 1926. Mrs. Marin D. Garvey, originator of the motto, received two appropriate prizes a washing machine (worth $160) and a “modern vacuum cleaner,” according to Granger.
Beginning the late 1910s and accelerating in the 1920s, PECO began a dedicated campaign to increase the average electrical demand of middle-class homes. It widely advertised its home wiring “installment plan” where homeowners and even renters could engage PECO to wire parts of their home. As John R. Stilgoe writes in his Metropolitan Corridor, other electrical companies encouraged “housewives to consume more electricity in daytime hours” by distributing “nearly free clothes irons on hot summer days, when women sweltered next to the coal stoves warming oldfashioned cast-iron flatirons.” In spurring this greater demand, PECO soon saw the need for a host of new generating stations located close to Philadelphia’s booming industrial and teeming residential districts.
On land formerly occupied by the Neafie and Levy shipyard in Kensington PECO intended to construct a much needed station that would supply the region by November 1918. The Company tapped its longtime corporate architect, John T. Windrim, whose work with both PECO and the Bell Telephone Company established him as a skilled translator of corporate identity into structure. In the same vein as the Chester Generating Station, Windrim’s Beux-Arts neoclassical station, completed in 1920, seeks to emphasize the great civic importance of power generation; yet the structure also strains to suggest absolute permanence. Considering that average Americans and industrialists still considered electricity faddish, Windrim’s station stands as a type of eternal contract with the legions of would-be electricity users—his design whispers: “We will be there but will you?”
That the building’s chaste Beaux-Arts exterior and detailwork is cast in concrete reflects the sometimes conflicting forces: corporate image (often associated with sober rationality) and economy of construction which constantly buffeted the industrial architect. While some designers thought detail fussy and rejected “historicist” elements instead preferring a “machine” transparency where the internal workings of the place are immediately observable from the exterior, others like Windrim sought to tap into the great tradition of the inspirational publicness of important buildings. Devotees of the Beaux-Arts, City Beautiful movement maintained that buildings should reveal a sense of rank, that they self-consciously bespeak their importance to their city and their nation. Undergirding this concept is, of course, the unalloyed benevolence of the industrial corporation. Yet PECO was not profligate in its dissemination of a corporate image and as a corporation beholden to its stockholders. The company found itself in dire straits in 1918 and thus all of Windrim’s details are cast in concrete. Yet even concrete was the new medium of economy, efficiency, and scientific control.
For all its imputed importance, the Delaware Generating Station, which went online October 21, 1920, was—and is—a machine. Its consumption of coal (325 tons every hour moved by clamshell hoists), its belching smoke, the whir of its turbines, and the antiseptic cleanliness of its generator rooms not only made it one of the era’s most sophisticated structures, but made its image nearly synonymous with social progress. Windrim did not need to expend much to inculcate respect for the civic importance of the Delaware Station, for the building which turned gritty coal into light, heat, and savings of labor was certainly held in mystical reverence by its unknowing observers.
“Palazzos of Power: Generating Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company, 1902-1926”
2.3.08 — As a postscript to this entry, I can’t neglect mentioning architectural historian Aaron Wunsch’s take on why Philadelphia’s Electric’s tidewater generating stations displayed a grandeur that Wunsch believes was unequaled in the country. At the Athenaeum of Philadelphia last week, Wunsch and photographer Joseph Elliot discussed the interiors, exteriors, symbolism and radical publicness of power generation in the early 20th century. Wunsch’s helpful addition came with his treatment of PECO’s construction program as a response to public revulsion at utility companies’ attempts to rate gouge customers. Pilloried by Morris L. Cooke, the ardent disciple of scientific management and Director of Public Works who urged municipal takeover of private utilities, PECO needed an instant makeover. Wunsch argues that engineers and architects worked in concert to create a cohesive classical aesthetic above the dirty fray of corrupt contentedness, a kind of architecture of irreprehensibility. Interpreting this ambitious architectural program as a kind of corporate response to a technocratic search for order is a welcome addition to the conversation about these buildings.