The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Apple Juice, OHNY 2009

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Caveat- What I know about electrical engineering wouldn’t produce enough charge to power an LED. Also, some of the information I’m passing on is sourced back to Open House New York flyers distributed at the event (just for proper attribution), handed out and written by Robert W. Lobenstein- General Superintendent of NYC Transit titled “A Walk Through History”. If I get something wrong, please contact me and we’ll make any appropriate corrections.

This isn’t actually the MTA Substation site- its around a block away and a completely different structure. Its just such good typography…- photo by Mitch Waxman

MTA Substations transmogrify high voltage Alternating Current charges, which flows from a central generator or powerhouse, into the 625 volts Direct Current electrifying the “third rail” which the fleets of Subway cars feed upon to gain their motive action- and fuel the various devices and systems found onboard a modern train (or rapid transit, to be accurate. The term train generally refers to a self actuating mechanism with a mobile locomotive powerplant – or engine- driving the action).

from ohny.org

MTA Substation
225 W 53rd St/ Broadway , New York
neighborhood: Midtown
opendialogue Sat 11 am, 1 pm tours with Robert Lobentstein, General Superintendent Power of Operations of NYC MTA Transit.
Maximum people: 25 per tour
building date: 1901, opened 1904
architect: Heins & LaFarge
other architects/consultants: William Barclay Parsons, McKim, Mead & White

MTA Substation
225 W 53rd St/ Broadway , New York
neighborhood: Midtown
opendialogue Sat 11 am, 1 pm tours with Robert Lobentstein, General Superintendent Power of Operations of NYC MTA Transit.
Maximum people: 25 per tour
building date: 1901, opened 1904
architect: Heins & LaFarge
other architects/consultants: William Barclay Parsons, McKim, Mead & White

ret_g10_img_0909_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

In the same year that Aleister Crowley wrote his “Book of the Law“, and the General Slocum carried away 1,021 souls at Hells Gate, and Robert Oppenheimer was born- the NYC Subway opened its doors for business (your humble narrator is used to passing the buck on certain subjects- the NYFD for instance- there are REAL experts out there who know far more than me. In the Subway story business, these folks are the tops).

In 1904, the nascent transit system was powered by a vast dynamo mill constructed on west 59th street between 11th and 12th avenues which fed AC current to eight substations (later combinations of IRT below and above shifted the nomen of the units in this group to the “teens”. One became eleven, eight became eighteen) which includes this site.

This is Substation 13.

the Gothamist blog was also here, and they got a great series of photos- lots of stuff I missed or just bungled the shot. Click here for a look.

ret_g10_img_0959_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Here at Substation 13, “giant red buttons which must never be pushed” abound. A sinister and pervasive electronic hum, the sound of nearby modern solid state rectfier equipment busily converting a pulsating flow of gigajoules uncounted, permeates the dark and dusty building. The old substation rotary works went offline in 1999.

from timeout.com

MTA Substation

What it is: One of the MTA’s original power stations, tucked beneath a midtown street.
Why go? Opened in 1904, this is one of eight original IRT substations that served the subway system (for some perspective, there are now 215). View modern generators, as well as historic rotary converters, the subway’s earliest power source.

ret_g10_img_0936_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Specialized and redundant armatures of steel are required to support the weight of each of these 50 ton rotary converters, and to withstand the stresses induced by their operation, although the actual truss that supports them is made from hardwoods. Grounded plating is incorporated into the brick and cement clad structure of the substation, vouchsafing neighboring buildings against electrical manifestations and stray voltage.

from joeclipart.com

It opened in 1904, the same year as the first subway. The mayor, governor and, apocryphally, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, among other dignitaries, arrived at the substation-warming party in horse-drawn buggies.

Old #13 has operated continuously since and today powers the 1 line, which old-timers still call the IRT. Although it houses sinister-looking modern equipment, the substation serves as a de facto museum because it contains original machinery, the centerpiece of which is the Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt rotary converter. Incredibly, this 50-ton wheel didn’t go offline until 1999.

ret_g10_img_0869_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The converter devices themselves were a constant point of photographic interest for me, the sort of “big” technology that a comic book supervillain might decorate his lair with. On one wall, an animation cel from a Popeye cartoon showed the post Spinach effect of multiple converters spinning within the distaff sailor’s bicep muscle.

from nycsubway.org

Because suitable real estate was difficult to find in the built-up downtown areas, contractor McDonald suggested that some of the sub-stations be placed underground. In February 1901 he requested the aid of the Rapid Transit Commission in acquiring the right to excavate under public lands at City Hall Park, Union Square, and Longacre (Times) Square. McDonald’s contract made him responsible for the purchase of all lands for power facilities and he hoped to cut down his expenses by using city rather than private property. After consulting its lawyers, the Board decided that it lacked authority to grant this request. McDonald had to build his sub-stations above ground.

It was desirable to have the distribution distance to the subway as short as possible after conversion to direct current at the sub-stations. In the downtown areas McDonald obtained sites no more than one-half block from the route. In the far less crowded up-town locations, the Simpson Street and the Hillside Avenue sub-stations were nearly adjacent to the track.

Two adjoining city lots, each 25×100 feet had to be purchased to house sub-station equipment. The resulting 50 foot width allowed installation of eight to ten rotary converters with their sets of transformers. In Sub-station #13 on West 53rd Street, foundations were laid for ten rotaries; the remaining seven were built to receive eight rotaries.

Foundations for eight to ten rotary converters was a provision for the future. The original 1901 Westinghouse contract called for only 26, 1,500-kilowatt rotary converters, or four to five per sub-station. In 1909 Westinghouse responded to a second call, this time for 3,000-kilowatt units. In the plans for the 1916-1918 general system expansion, additional contracts to both Westinghouse and General Electric provided 4,000-kilowatt rotaries, some of which replaced the older 1,500-kilowatt machines. During expansion, [page 330] Sub-station 11 at Park Place was demolished, and its replacement, a half block from the original site was equipped with 4,000-kilowatt units. In 1923 additional 4,000-kilowatt General Electric and Westinghouse units were installed.

The remaining seven of the original eight IRT sub-stations are still standing. Number 19 on West 132nd Street is no longer in use and its equipment has been removed. The others still operate daily [in 1978] with equipment from the earliest installations. [The last of the rotary converter equipment has since been retired.]

ret_g10_img_0881_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Notoriously, your humble narrator is almost always “a day late and dollar short”, and the fabled “caving rig” lighting setup I’ve been working on for nearly a year was still incomplete when the OHNY event happened. I was lucky enough to be carrying a powerful LED electric torch by happenstance, which allowed some of these exposures sufficient quality for publication at  Newtown Pentacle. Quite dark, Substation 13 awaits a creative application of lighting- perhaps the good folks at Strobist can gain access to the site sometime in the future and construct an application of proper illumination.

also from nycsubway.org

Each rotary converter stood in its own hard-wood frame. The frame was not bolted to the Portland cement foundations; the rotary weight was expected to hold the unit in place. The rotaries were the heaviest equipment of the sub-station. Two hand-operated cranes, at the front of each sub-station on the main floor, were provided for the rotary installation and service.

ret_g10_img_0858_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Vast banks of machinery, replete with switches and glassed in gauges, line the walls of Substation 13. I’ve avoided posting photos of the more modern equipment, for a variety of reasons- mainly its not as cool looking, and the light was so bad I couldn’t get a non blurry shot.

from wikipedia

When the first subway opened between 1904 and 1908, one of the main service patterns was the West Side Branch, running from Lower Manhattan to Van Cortlandt Park via what is now the IRT Lexington Avenue Line, 42nd Street Shuttle, and IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line. Both local and express trains were operated, with express trains using the express tracks south of 96th Street. Express trains ran through to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn during rush hours, while other express trains and all local trains turned around at City Hall or South Ferry.

ret_g10_img_0973_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A labyrinth of access tunnels and manholes marks the lower level of Substation 13, whose mouldering brick and disintegrating concrete speaks to the infiltration and regular egress of flood waters. Apertures in the roof of the subterranean level look up into the rotary converters, and the walls are lined with empty sockets which once allowed electrical conduits to snake through the masonry.

from mta.info

New York City’s first official subway system opened in Manhattan on October 27, 1904. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) operated the 9.1-mile long subway line that consisted of 28 stations from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway.

ret_g10_img_0975_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The art practiced by those engineers of the MTA who serve the modern system has -over the years- witnessed installation of 215 solid state converters, which are largely sited in deep underground vaults and inaccessible side tunnels hidden below the streets of New York City. Consolidated Edison- an electrical trust given stewardship over the metropolitan power grid- also used to maintain multitudinous converter substations for its commercial customers, but these too have been abandoned in favor of the more reliable and less labor intensive solid state rectifiers of the type now used by MTA. This room in particular, was original equipment, and was referred to as “the Manhole” where the Direct Current lines from the generator exited the soil and entered Substation 13. The atmosphere literally pulsed with latency.

from wikipedia

Electro Magnetic Fields (EMF) measurements are measurements of the magnetic or electric field taken with particular sensors or probes. These probes can be generally considered as antennas although with different characteristics. In fact probes should not perturb the electromagnetic field and must prevent coupling and reflection as much possible in order to obtain a precise measure. EMF measurements are nowadays becoming important and wide spread in different sectors to assess environmental and human exposure to non-ionizing radiation in many contexts.

ret_g10_img_0968_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

MTA has sold off many of its relict and offline substation buildings, which have been cross purposed by the modern world to “the needs of the now”. A lumber warehouse, a Chinese noodle factory, an auto repair shop, even a movie theatre- are amongst the modern vocations enjoyed by some of these solidly built structures.

from google books,

a little Congressional Office of Technology Assessment reporting on the effect on Human Physiological Parameters of exposure to high energy power lines (from the New York State Power Line Project).

ret_g10_img_0962_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Purveyors of the paranormal- who are undergoing a period of intense public interest in recent years due to the influence of several popular television series and a prevailing political fashion that interprets world events through a supernatural lensing of  fin de siècle prophecy  – speak about arrangements of electrical equipment and their concurrent electromagnetic field fluctuations as creating an environment which alters human perception. If this theory holds water, I would imagine the men and women who worked here might have some stories to share- and probably a union beef against the City.

but seriously…

here’s a map from nycsubway.org of the system in 1904 when it opened.  The crane above was one of many hand operated technologies that allowed the early system to come together. Workers would lift the 50 ton converters for maintenance and repairs using it.

ret_g10_img_0922_ohny.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

New York Open House is a yearly event wherein the architectural and civil engineering treasures of New York City that are normally off limits to the general public are exhibited by their stewards. For more info, and to sign up for notifications of next year’s event- proceed to OHNY.org.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

October 19, 2009 at 3:03 pm

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