Investing in Our Past spotlights a historic building that has been repurposed, demonstrating the economic value of preservation and reuse.

Standing on the west bank of the Delaware River in the city of Chester is the Delaware County Electrical Company building, a former coal-fired electric generation plant. Channels on either side of this neoclassical style building allowed coal to be delivered by river barges up into the towers. The building was designed in 1916 by architect John T. Windrim and engineered by Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) engineer, William C. L. Elgin. The neoclassical design responded to the principles of the City Beautiful movement, reflecting stability, permanence, and civic responsibility at a time when electric utilities faced considerable public scrutiny. The design for Turbine Hall’s interior was an immense formal room that retained details found only in contemporary train stations at that time. Additionally, the classically designed fifth-floor employee dining room and kitchen, which later became PECO offices, were not only filled with modern appliances, but demonstrated a concern for employees and showcased how electricity could be used in everyday lives.

The building’s four elevations are organized in a classical tripartite arrangement of columns or pilasters bearing on a rusticated base and supporting a classical entablature. The entablature around the building has a frieze decorated with alternating rectangular brick and circular concrete panels and a bracketed cornice. Parapet panels above the cornice contain the name Delaware County Electrical Company on the principal east and west elevations and Chester Station on the north façade above the columns at Turbine Hall. On either side of the building were two eight-story coal elevator towers.

In the 1880s, power plants were traditionally designed as isolated facilities to serve small, defined areas and all activities were in a single building. Due to increased consumer confidence and demand at the turn of the century, electrical stations were located next to water resources for ease of coal delivery and for condensing and cooling modern turbines. By the mid-teens, there was a need to have a physical separation of spaces utilizing a switch house, turbine room, and boiler house.

In order to generate power, coal was fed from barges and conveyed to the top of the coal towers. The coal was then crushed, loaded onto coal cars, and delivered to the bunkers above the boilers. Once the coal was burned to produce steam, the ash by-product was then loaded onto cars and off-loaded into ash pits. Water was then fed through a closed system into boilers and heated to produce steam. Steam drove the turbine blades, producing mechanical energy to generate electricity. This electrical energy was transmitted to the switch house through cables to the ground, first, and second floors. Operators in the switch house controlled the generator load and flow of electricity within the station network.

The Chester Waterside Station was constructed adjacent to the Delaware River and its configuration reflected the three necessary functions to produce electricity: a switch house, turbine hall, and boiler house. Construction began in September 1916 on the 120,000 kilowatt station with an anticipated cost of $5,500,000. However, due to the war effort, the first phase of construction was not completed until 1919 and generated only 60,000 kilowatts. In 1919, eight boilers were installed in the boiler house and two turbo-generators were installed in the turbine hall and the appropriate switch gear located in the switch house. By 1925, the second phase of construction was completed with the installation of eight additional boilers, two more turbo-generators, and the appropriate switch equipment, and the station was able to generate 120,000 kilowatts. However, by the Great Depression, the Chester Waterside Station had become one of the least productive plants in the PECO system. Between 1939 and 1942, a high-pressure topping cycle turbo-generator was added between units 2 and 3, and four boilers were replaced with two high-pressure steam boilers to increase output and improve efficiency. Additionally, a coal conveyor belt system supplemented the coal car delivery system into the boiler house. It was during this time that an addition was built to the east elevation in order to install a new generator. Subsequent upgrades after World War II maintained the existing power source, but the plant was not considered a primary supplier.

Philadelphia Electric Company operated the plant until 1981, but the switch house and substation remained connected to the company grid and were used to transmit and distribute electricity until 1987, when the entire complex was permanently shut down. Salvage operations and the transfer of all switch house functions to the outdoor substation began in 1997 and were completed the following year.

According to Kevin Traynor, executive vice president of Preferred Real Estate Investments, Philadelphia, “Mike O’Neill [founder and CEO] was riding on the Spirit of Philadelphia and saw the building and fell in love with it. He thought of the building as an opportunity to spur development in Chester, and it would be a once- in-a-lifetime project.” The building remained vacant until 2002 when PECO sold it to Preferred Real Estate. Investments for one dollar if Preferred agreed to undertake environmental remediation. A $10 million remediation project begun immediately and continued for eighteen months.

In order to reuse the building as offices, a major tenant was needed which could also utilize the 26,000 square-foot Turbine Hall. This tenant was Synygy, Inc., which provides software to manage corporate incentive compensation plans. Synygy agreed to lease two floors in the boiler house, two floors in the switch house, and to use all of Turbine Hall, totaling 178,000 square feet. In exchange, the CEO of Synygy required a monumental entry (where there wasn’t one) and a connection from the boiler house into Turbine Hall. This connection would prove to be difficult due to the classical detailing and prompted extensive discussions.

Preservation consultant Suzanna Barucco noted, “The project was complicated for two reasons: One, the size of these immense interconnected buildings, and two, it was a huge masonry building. How do you heat and cool a space as large as Turbine Hall without getting drenched at the sixth floor? How do you get systems into a space without exposing the ductwork? These two issues required that we [the project team] work closely with the mechanical and electrical engineers.”

In order to finance this $54 million project, Preferred Real Estate Investments applied for historic tax credits. Parts 1 and 2 of the rehabilitation certification application were submitted to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP) by Suzanna Barucco, then of Martin J. Rosenblum Architects acting as the preservation consultant, and Blackney Hayes Architects as the core and shell architects with Hillier Architecture as the interior architects on behalf of Synygy.

When BHP staff members made their first site visit on January 4, 2001, they were impressed by the building’s size and the 115-foot-high, barrel-vaulted space of Turbine Hall. The hall was lined with paired Tuscan columns on each side and with Tuscan pilasters at each end. Between each pilaster was corrugated green wire glass. Turbines were set into the floor extending into the sub-basement with character defining railings around the metal monsters.
When Part 2 of the application was reviewed, a number of problematic areas and issues were identified including environmental remediation and the removal of the smoke stacks, the lobby space, entry between the boiler house and Turbine Hall, a roof top addition, and window replacement.

A second site visit was made on July 18, 2002, to clarify issues and identify what additional information was needed. Several behind-the-scenes meetings were held to refine the connection between the boiler house and Turbine Hall and the rooftop addition. After the project was forwarded to the National Park Service (NPS), a third site visit was made by BHP staff in October 2002 with the NPS.

In order for the economics of the project to work, two additional floors were needed in the boiler house to reach a total of 400,000 square feet. Once the former boiler equipment was removed, the boiler house appeared to be able to accommodate six floors. In reality, the first floor was used for parking, since it was located in a flood plane. The fourth floor lines up just below the 30-foot entablature, so that if a fifth floor were to be located there, windows would be needed at this level. Given the significance of the entablature, windows could not be inserted, so the fifth floor was raised seven feet above the roof level and recessed five feet behind the parapet. The sixth floor was recessed an additional ten feet for a total of fifteen feet behind the parapet. Considering the size of the adjacent buildings, the existence of roof top penetrations, and the limited visibility due to its recessed location, it was determined that the boiler house rooftop addition would meet the federal rehabilitation standards.

The Chester Waterside Station is one of the most complicated buildings that has been rehabilitated in recent times. Its historic design, configuration, and large open spaces are features that only Mike O’Neill could envision and carry forward to completion. The complexities of this project were many, but with the capabilities of Synygy as a major tenant, the entire building has been saved for future generations.

 

Bonnie Wilkinson Mark received a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1982. After acquiring experience in the construction industry, she graduated from Cornell University in 1985 with an M.A. in Preservation Planning. The writer, who joined the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1997, is a historical architect for PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation. She is responsible for the administration and technical review of the Rehabilitation Investment Tax Act program. In addition, she assists local governments and property owners with responsible rehabilitation techniques for historic buildings and with building codes and ADA issues associated with building rehabilitation. For the National Park Service, she authored Case Study in Affordable Housing Through Historic Preservation No. 3: Shelly School Apartments, West York, Pennsylvania.