By Matt Blanchard
This majestic structure, a great tan block sprouting eight rusted smokestacks, no longer generates power. But it does generate questions: Is it still in operation? Is it threatened with demolition? And if it’s just a power plant, why is it so handsomely detailed? The Delaware Power Station was built by the Philadelphia Electric Company in 1920, to avert a predicted power shortage. It labored steadily from then on, with an expansion in 1954, until its last two turbine units were silenced in February 2004. Designed by architects John T. Windrim and W.C.L. Eglin in 1917, the station is a rougher and more muscular version of the great public buildings of its time, with similar massing and classical detail. That resemblance is not coincidental; In addition to power plants, Windrim’s firm executed more refined public commissions for the Franklin Institute and Philadelphia Municipal Court.
(See further discussion of the plant’s design and construction in excerpts from Wainwright’s History of the Philadelphia Electric Company 1881-1961 at the end of this article. Courtesy Kenneth W. Milano)
The Delaware Station occupies the site of a major moment in naval history. This shore was once the Neafie & Levy Shipyard, where in November of 1861, the Union government placed an order for the construction of “one iron submarine.” Christened the Alligator, it was the first submarine of the Civil War, rushed into service with the purpose of destroying the Confederate ironclad, Merrimack. It didn’t work out that way. The entire story is available from the Office of Naval Research at www.navyandmarine.org/alligator/index.htm.
In 1922, Windrim built a sister station upriver, the equally dramatic Richmond Power Station, just south of the Betsy Ross Bridge.
The Delaware Station is now owned by Excelon Generation. With the generation turbines silent, Excelon spokesman Ben Armstrong said the company has no particular plans for the site, but is holding onto ownership of the property to see if it can return to power generation in the future.
Sara Thorp, executive director of the non-profit Delaware River City Corporation, reports that the Richmond plant was recently nominated for the historic properties register maintained by the city’s Historical Commission. The nomination failed.
History of the Philadelphia Electric Company 1881-1961. By Nicholas B. Wainwright. Philadelphia 1961.(Excerpted by Kenneth W. Milano)
Looking even farther ahead, [Joseph B.]McCall [board chairman of PE] purchased the Neafie & Levy shipyard in Kensington, thereby securing about eight and half acres with a 450 foot frontage on the Delaware River. On this site, at some unspecified future time, he planned to erect another central station
To provide the generating capacity necessary for the next two years, construction of Delaware Station had to be started at once so that it would be ready by November, 1918. The directors approved the president’s plans, which called for the expenditure of $18,000,000 beyond the $6,500,000 already authorized.
Whether or not there was to be a power shortage hung on the fate of the Delaware Station. Work on its foundation was promptly begun according to blueprints worked out by Eglin and Windrim, but within two months the project was brought to a halt. McCall could not finance it; indeed, he was in straits to find the money to complete Chester Station and to pay off a $2,500,000 loan due to Drexel & Company.
After the war, in 1920, construction finally got back underway. Stone & Webster were the general contractors for the construction of the plant, which was successfully erected despite a building trades strike in 1920. For a while, construction was suspended. When resumed Stone & Webster were successful in maintaining an open shop, except for their recognition of the carpenters’ union. Before the year was out, both 30,000-kilowatt generators installed in the first unit of the station were in use.
In January of 1923 a third 30,000-kilowatt generator for the Delaware Station was ordered.In the Summer of 1923, a final 30,000 kilowatt was ordered for Delaware Station.
Two more generators were ordered for Delaware Station in 1950 and installed by 1953, two 136,000-kilowatt units, the biggest that could fit in the station. Significant of advances in the art of electric generation was the fact that while it required 146 men to operate the 195,750 kilowatts of capacity in the old part of Delaware Station, the new part with its 272,000 kilowatts called for only twenty-four more workers.