If you take a look at 264 West 96th Street, you may only see an abandoned, potentially hazardous building. This was not always the case. In fact, it was once functional and beautiful. Revisiting the history of this building can shed some light on why it is in its current state, and also add some appreciation for what it was in its prime.
Imagine a time when 72nd street was not yet paved. The population of the Upper West Side was booming, and people started to wonder how they were going to get around. In 1901, residents of the UWS were becoming more concerned about their need for public transportation. The Rapid Transit Subway Construction Co. was put in charge of creating subway lines to connect the UWS to the rest of the city.
As part of the efforts to improve transportation, Substation 11 was created at modern day 264 West 96th Street. It was important to the community that the substation not only serve its purpose to power the rails, but that the design would fit into the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Architects Van Vleck and Hunter were hired to do the job.
Tom Miller describes some the details of the architecture as “carved ornamentation, [with a] dormered mansard roof, and two-story metal-framed bays creat[ing] a striking structure that could hold its own among handsome civic buildings like firehouses and libraries.”
Putting a substation in a neighborhood was no small task. Tunnels needed to be created, tracks laid down, and the station would house all of the machinery needed to power it all.
Very few people outside of the power department have ever ventured into these substations, and there is very little, if any historical documentation or photographs of them. In 1997, Christopher Payne found himself in the surprising position of uncovering these substations. He describes walking into these old buildings as leaving an impression of awe and surprise. Payne took it upon himself to document and photograph as many as he could prior to their demolitions for repurposing of the space. He states that it was “like unearthing relics of another civilization, except that these archeological sites were located between modern office buildings, apartments, and stores.”
Even under extreme conditions substations had to work. Each machine in the substation had a duplicate in case one went out. It was very dangerous to work with the high voltage machinery, and so each worker was expertly trained. Much of the time workers spent during their eight-hour shifts was focused on keeping the machinery in clean, working condition.
Substations, including Substation 11, solved the transportation issues in the short term, but over time, delays, outages, and overcrowding became common complaints. The city had to step in to meet the growing demands. In 1940, the MTA, a city owned agency, took over the system. Time passed, technology improved, and Substation 11 was left behind. The building, which housed all of the machinery, was abandoned.
It was not until 1991 when there was an attempt to sell the property. According to Tom Miller’s research, the offering was unusual in that the building was packaged in an offer with the two neighboring properties. There was a minimum of $6.2 million for a bid.
Nothing came out of the attempts to sell and since then, 264 West 96th Street has been left alone. Looking at the building now, one may wonder why nothing has been done. It has become a community eyesore and complaints have started to pile up. There have been attempts over the years to convert Substation 11 to housing, but nothing has happened as of yet.
Perhaps now is the time that something will be done with the property.
The Land Use Committee is holding a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16th at 6:30 pm to discuss a proposed development by Fetner Properties of a 23-story residential and community facility building which would span from 266-270 West 96th Street. Here is a link to Community Board 7’s committee agenda, which includes this topic among others.
According to a proposal Fetner Properties submitted to the city on May 1st, the new development would have 171 total apartments, 80 of which would be micro-units and 91 would be traditionally sized. In addition, 68 of the apartments would be designated as permanently affordable housing units.
If it moves forward, the project is expected to be complete by 2022.Join the Upper West Side newsletter for more real estate + new development updates:
Images via Google Street View
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