Up in Smoke

Will the Powerhouse still be the Powerhouse without her most distinctive feature?

Picture this: Mount Rushmore without that guy with the wooden teeth. Lady Liberty without her torch. Big Ben without her clocks. The Taj Mahal without her dome. You get the picture. Well, that’s what the future holds for the Powerhouse, which is set to lose—you guessed it—her smokestacks.
In our Spring/Summer 2011 issue, we did a cover story on the Powerhouse, which featured Camilo Godoy’s haunting images. At that time, we promised to keep you updated on what’s going on with Jersey City’s most iconic structure.
Bob Antonicello, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, called a few months ago to deliver the unfortunate news.
“The stacks have to come down,” he said. “They’ve been significantly degraded structurally over the years.” The concern is that one or more stacks could collapse, damaging a wall of the structure.
Beyer, Blinder, and Belle (BBB), architects noted for historic restorations, including the Hoboken terminal waiting room and the Hoboken ferry terminal, were called in to evaluate the smokestacks. One problem was that nobody had ever gotten close enough to analyze their condition. Enter Vertical Access, a company that specializes in “industrial rope access.”
They brought in a 200-foot boom, one of only three in the world, according to Antonicello.
BBB then issued a report, which found that the smokestacks were a “threat to safety and sustainability of the building,” recommending removal of three extant stacks and the remnants of the fourth. Next steps included “replacement of the iconic elements” and stabilizing the building.

And the rest is history

John Gomez, Jersey City’s go-to guy for all things historic, was audibly devastated. “It’s obviously a troubling situation and should never have gotten to this point,” he said, “but there is no alternative but to take them down because of the structural issues.”
It was more than 100 years of rain that ruined the stacks.
Gomez said the stacks were made in pieces with a brick interior surrounded by steel, so you can’t dismantle them in one piece.
There are a number of options: Never replace them, or create new smokestacks that look like the originals. The decorative cornices on top of the stacks could be displayed as museum pieces or kept in front of the structure as sculptures. Or four holograms of the stacks could be displayed in a light show, much like the ones that featured the ghosts of the Twin Towers after Sept. 11, 2001.
Last spring, the New York Timeswrote a story about New York City’s many beautiful powerhouses. Renowned architect Stanford White designed the one at 11th Avenue and 59th Street. “Its Renaissance-style exterior could just as well have clothed an opera house,” wrote reporter Christopher Gray, “although the five colossal stacks gave it away.”
All the powerhouses in this story were built around the same time as the one in Jersey City—early 1900s—and those “colossal stacks” are a signature feature of each.
“The smokestacks are a major part of the powerhouse, which is an icon of our industrial past,” said Antonicello. “They will be a part of the ultimate renovation and restoration, but you can’t take what has been 50 to 60 years of neglect and look to undo it.”—Kate Rounds


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