The architectural style of a building is a peek into how the person–or entity–that commissioned the project wanted to be perceived. Royalty built castles as displays of power. When the U.S. government wanted to project a down-to-business persona, it mandated utilitarian Brutalism. And let’s not forget the gilded skyscrapers Trump constructs to project a veneer of wealth over a string of business failures and bankruptcies.
The Philadelphia Electric Company was among the first utilities to power urban centers, along with companies in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland and London. And as it constructed an extensive network of substations between 1900 and 1930, its architects leaned on a classical language to communicate that its services–a novel technology at the time–were essential to modern society. Electricity wasn’t just modern; it was dignified and progressive.
Palazzos of Power, a new book from Princeton Architectural Press and author Aaron V. Wunsch, chronicles the design and development of these structures with gorgeous black-and-white, Becher-esque photos by Joseph E.B. Elliott.
Much like the net neutrality controversy of today–which centers on whether the internet should be a publicly managed utility or a privately owned luxury? And who should be policing it?–electrical companies at the turn of the century were caught in a debate over who should run them: cities or private corporations.
“The Philadelphia Electric Company felt itself under attack from municipal power advocates, and the corporation was in constant negotiation over rates, right-of-way for transmission lines, and various safety issues,” David E. Nye writes in the book’s introduction. “Its architecture sought to present the corporation as an efficient and responsible cornerstone of society.”
The reposed facades adorned with Greek columns and intricately carved cornices belied the heavy-duty infrastructure inside–the turbines, switch rooms, motor rooms, circuit breakers, and ventilation systems used to generate power. Enormous vaults–some as magnificent as Parisian libraries and railway stations–created interior spaces large enough to house the machinery. Inside and out, the Philadelphia Electric Company’s architecture oozed exultation.
“One might regard the power stations as a successful form of hegemony, in which a business legitimized itself by embracing a style with no obvious associations to its particular technology or even to industrialization,” Nye writes. “The Philadelphia Electric Company was seeking not only to cultivate an image of refinement and civic virtue but also to integrate a powerful source of change–electricity–into the cityscape and the patterns of everyday life.”
Indeed, electricity was a bellwether of modernism and power companies latched on to the notion of the utility as a mainline for progress. The Philadelphia Electric Company’s slogan was “if it isn’t electric, it isn’t modern” and used the phrase in ad campaigns placed in store windows. The Harrisburg Electric Light Company mounted similar marketing tactics, using the motto, “The Chief Attraction of the Modern Home: electric light is the stamp of modernity.”
Architecture was an essential part of the strategy to embed electricity into the minds of consumers and get them comfortable with the technology. See a few examples of the Philly Electric Company’s buildings in the slideshow above.
[All Photos: © 2016 Joseph E. B. Elliott]