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Philadelphia’s Electrical Sublime

Soaring vaulted ceilings, elaborate skylights and rows of columns—they don’t make power plants like they used to. In the new book Palazzos of Power: Central Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company, 1900–1930, published recently by Princeton Architectural Press, Joseph E. B. Elliott photographs Philadelphia’s central power stations, built in the first part of the last century and falling into disrepair  when he photographed them, between 2000 and 2002. Working with the historian Aaron V. Wunsch, Elliott documents four of the Philadelphia Electric Company’s colossal structures, which housed the coal-fired turbines that provided power for the city’s center. Their ornate architecture prompts questions about why buildings with such a modern purpose take such neoclassical forms. The answer, writes David E. Nye in the book’s foreword, was that as the company struggled to justify its status as a corporation rather than a public utility, (as some power plants were in other cities,) “executives wanted their buildings—and, by extension, their firms—to be associated with Philadelphia’s major banks, art museums, libraries, and other public structures,” which they resemble from the outside.

In Elliott’s photos, turbine halls sit empty, paint peels on brick, and grass grows along the dirt path leading to Chester Station, which has been out of use since 1984. These buildings, writes Elliott in a statement in the book, “are seen as monuments, examined with regard to design, structure, and material, in the manner of cathedrals or palaces from an earlier age. The photographs in this project thus capture a time of transition—the final phase of the industrial period.”

Related Stories:
A Vision of the Future in Past World’s Fairs
Setting the Stage: David Leventi’s “Opera”
Ty Cole’s Photos Offer a New Look at London’s Brutalist Buildings

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