Changing Skyline: Historic Delaware Station is ripe for reinvention

Delaware Station, next to Penn Treaty Park, is up for sale. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The similarities between the massive, decaying Delaware Station next to Philadelphia's Penn Treaty Park and the Franklin Institute on Logan Square may not be immediately obvious, but they are really sister buildings. Both were designed by Philadelphia architect John T. Windrim in the early 20th century, and dressed in the classical drapery of the past. Yet both serve as temples to our modern faith in technology.

There's a difference, though. One has led a privileged life as a science museum while the other was a hardworking electric generating station. That job has been eliminated, so it's time to explore a second career. Why not make the old power plant a museum, too?

The idea has been mentioned for years, but it became a real possibility last week when the plant's owner, Exelon Corp., announced it was putting the white elephant up for sale. The most famous precedent, London's Tate Modern, was carved out of the Bankside Power Station on the Thames, and its soaring turbine hall has proved perfect for large-scale and interactive art displays. That's the kind of art venue Philadelphia now lacks, but the Delaware building could suitably house any sort of museum.

No doubt, there would be formidable financial and physical challenges to turning the generating station into a museum. But before the property is sold, plans made, and options circumscribed, it's worth having a conversation about what the city can do to move a good idea toward reality.

Despite the plant's pedigree, it is not a given that a buyer will want to reuse the old building, whose rusting rebar is visible through the broken concrete. Like so many of Philadelphia's great industrial relics, Delaware Station is a lot of building to renovate: 223,000 square feet. It also sits on roughly 10 acres of dry waterfront land, with an additional six under the Delaware. You can build an awful lot of apartments with river views on a chunk of property like that.

On the plus side, the sale comes at a good moment for the electric plant, which has the subdued grace of 30th Street Station. We've begun to recognize the value of Philadelphia's industrial heritage and the awe-inspiring cathedrals it produced. There are few better examples than this building.

Constructed in 1920, Delaware Station was one of a trio of generating plants that Windrim designed for the Philadelphia Electric Co. (now Peco). Strung out along the Delaware, they stretched from Chester to Philadelphia's Port Richmond section, each a variation on a classical temple. It's not surprising Windrim was later selected to design the Franklin, which celebrates the electrical age.

With the waterfront finally gaining traction, the plant's location should help its cause. As the Exelon sales prospectus notes, the power plant is also a quick walk from the booming Fishtown neighborhood and its evolving cultural scene. It has some of the best walking connections of any neighborhood along the Delaware, especially at Columbia Avenue, which leads directly to the power plant's front door.

Its easy access is illustrated by the growing popularity of Penn Treaty Park, on the station's southern edge. Long neglected, it has rebounded as a neighborhood respite. Even on a Monday evening, it was packed with a diverse cross section of people: men fishing at the water's edge, children scampering on the playground, picnickers lolling in the grass, chess players huddled around the tables. A few blocks south, developer Michael Samschick is slowly repurposing a clutch of industrial buildings as a nightlife district. A museum at the power plant would add synergy to the mix.

The city appears to recognize the building's potential. Its reuse was recommended in the 2011 waterfront master plan. "We very much want to see the building preserved," Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., told me. "If you look beyond the debris, it's like Grand Central Station. You can sense the possibilities."

His agency doesn't intend to bid on the building, but it has put out the word that it's willing to help the new owner with practical matters. It has experience remediating hazardous chemicals, which surely exist inside this former coal-burning plant. The agency can also assist the owner in securing government grants to offset the renovation costs. While the building isn't on the city's Historic Register, it should be, if only so it can qualify for valuable tax credits.

Nobody says that the entire structure has to be devoted to a museum. It would be enough to use the power plant's vaulted, sunlit turbine hall for exhibits within a larger mixed-use complex. The Friends of Penn Treaty Park would love space for a cultural center where they could display their colonial artifacts.

While the Tate is the best-known success story, closer to home, Chester's Waterside Station - one of Windrim's trio - was converted to offices in 2005 and now forms the centerpiece of a waterfront redevelopment effort. The offices there hug the perimeter of the immense building because that's where the windows are. In Baltimore, a former power plant anchors an Inner Harbor entertainment complex. Because of the Delaware Station's square format, Corcoran says he can imagine it as apartments.

The one thing that should not happen is demolition. Tearing down the Delaware Station would not only be a waste of good architecture, it would be hugely expensive. A new building won't be easy to finance because of the flooding threat, which is sure to get worse as sea levels rise.

Big, classically inspired boxes like the Delaware Station and the Franklin Institute are what prompted Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to coin the phrase decorated shed. They admired such buildings because, despite their exterior ornament, they were flexible enough inside to be reused after their original purpose was lost. It doesn't so much matter what kind of second life the Delaware Station finds, as long as it allows the public a chance to be part of it.