Palazzos of Power: Eye Candy for Electric Power History Buffs

Thoughts of electric generating plants don’t usually conjure images of impressive architecture. Modern power plants (with a few exceptions such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant on California’s gorgeous coast) are mostly uninteresting industrial facilities, hardly worth a second glance.

That wasn’t always the case, as a new book from Princeton Architectural Press, “Palazzos of Power: Central Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company 1900-1930” makes clear. The large-format book features an introduction by historian David E. Nye; and text by Aaron V. Wunsch of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in historic preservation and the department of landscape architecture, and noted photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott, a professor of art at Muhlenberg College. The strength of the book is the photography by Elliott.

Cover art: Schuylkill Station A-2 turbine hall
Cover art: Schuylkill Station A-2 turbine hall

Nye writes, “Central power stations once held great prestige, for they symbolized the shift from muscle power to machine power, from small-scale to industrial production, and from the dimly lighted artisanal world to the flashing signs and vibrant nightlife of the skyscraper city.” The 30 years the book covers coincided with the emergence, thanks to alternating current, of large, central-station generating plants (often located in and near city centers) and the rise of the “City Beautiful” movement, a turn of the 20th century reform associated with the nascent profession of city planning.

“Palazzo” is an Italian word for a palatial structure, and these Philadelphia power plants were just that, built to neoclassical designs. Nor were the impressive structures in Philly unique to the industry, as Nye notes. The company was a member of the National Electric Lighting Association (a predecessor to today’s Edison Electric Institute), which advocated for investor-owned utilities as opposed to the municipal systems which were fierce competitors, and also offered advice on architecture. “The NELA’s extensive coordination of the industry included the architecture of major power stations,” he said, “which members usually toured during their annual meetings in the major American cities.”

Photographer Elliott creates elegant images – all appropriately in black-and-white – of now abandoned buildings that housed power production. Despite their age and often sorry condition, the architectural bones stand out. Elliott says that he became interested in industrial art while in art school in the 1970s. He was deeply influenced by photographers Charles Sheeler, Margaret Bourke-White, Andreas Feininger and W. Eugene Smith and their work in Life magazine in the 1930s and 1940s.

The initial Life cover in November, 1936, was a Bourke-White photo of the Fort Peck hydro dam in Montana.

Fort Peck Dam on Life's first cover
Fort Peck Dam on Life’s first cover

Elliott began shooting pictures of Philadelphia’s industrial architecture in the mid-1990s for the Historic American Buildings Survey. “My photographic work for HABS took me to all parts of the city, and my radar for industrial zones quickly recognized the standing hulks of the PECO power stations,” he writes. The economic downturn in the City of Brotherly Love led to “declining property values,” which “provided little incentive to tear down and build anew.” That is changing and one day these structures may come down. Palazzos of Power preserves much of their industrial beauty.

Aaron V. Wunsch, Joseph E.B. Elliott, foreword by David E. Nye; Palazzos of Power: Central Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company 1900-1930; Princeton Architectural Press; 2016.