The Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company building, commonly known as the Batcave or Gowanus Batcave, is a former transit power station in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York City by the Gowanus Canal. It was built in 1901–1904, while the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was expanding its rapid transit and streetcar service. It stopped operating in 1972 and sat abandoned for more than two decades, becoming home to a community of squatters in the early 2000s. The owners had the squatters removed and increased security in 2006, but only temporarily, after which it became a popular space for graffiti and underground events.
In 2012, philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz purchased the property for $7 million with plans to turn it into The Powerhouse Workshop, an arts space focused on the fabrication of artistic goods. It is managed through the nonprofit Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation. In 2019, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Gowanus Batcave as an official city landmark.
Early history and construction
In the late 19th century, as the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) expanded, greater demand was placed on its power supply. In the time before the Central Power Station was constructed, the system had been operated entirely by direct current, with boosters used where long distances required them. As territory grew to be farther and farther away from the power stations, and as the company looked for ways to increase flexibility to adapt to future growth, it was decided that the best way to increase power capacity was to adopt a new system which would allow them to use large, single stations in central locations with convenient access to coal and water. Current could be distributed without excessive loss to any part of the system, and the high-tension feeders underground removed the need to string heavy overhead cables.
The need for a new power house was emphasized when a power station within Ridgewood, Queens, burned down on December 4, 1900.:11 The following month, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that a site had been found on the active Gowanus Canal in South Brooklyn. The site, located at Third Avenue and First Street, had easy access to coal, water, and other supplies. Another power station had already been built there, but the plot of land for the new building was large enough to hold a large store of coal while also allowing for future expansion.
Construction was overseen by Charles Edward Roehl.:12 Work on the building's foundations began in May 1901:11 and was finished the following January,:11 though further work was delayed by equipment shortages and labor strikes.:11 At the time, it was estimated that the Central Power House would cost $3 million. The brick facade of the building was erected during 1902.:11 Construction was completed in 1903, and the first engine started operating that March. Four engines were operational by June 1903,:11 and by the following year, the structure was declared "practically completed", with all eight engines working.
The Central Power Station's design is attributed to by Thomas E. Murray in the Romanesque Revival style. However, there is insufficient evidence in contemporary media that definitively ascribes the design to Murray.:12 The building is made of red brick with bluestone trimmings, atop piles surmounted by a concrete bed about 6 feet (1.8 m) thick. Its layout was divided into two portions: the southern portion used for the engine and dynamo room, and the northern portion, considerably higher, contained two stories of boilers, with coal storage above. The front, on Third Avenue, is 183 feet 3 inches (55.85 m) long, and the depth of the building 186 feet 9 inches (56.92 m), although the part which was occupied by boilers is 20 feet (6.1 m) shorter. The roof over the operating and boiler rooms is filled in between the T-irons with 3 by 12 by 24 inches (76 by 305 by 610 mm) hard-burned terracotta roofing tile laid in Portland cement, covered with a slag and cement roofing.:12 The letters brooklyn rapid transit company were inscribed on the side of the boiler building.:12
The BRT became the BMT in 1923 after going bankrupt in the wake of the Malbone Street Wreck.:15 In 1939, shortly before the New York City Board of Transportation was dissolved and the BMT Fifth Avenue Line was demolished, the Central Power Station was renumbered as substation #25. After being renumbered, the Central Power Station took alternating current from the Williamsburg Power House, turning it into direct current.:15 In the 1950s, the boiler house was demolished. The engine house supplied power to the New York City Subway's Fourth Avenue Line, formerly operated by the BMT, until 1972 when the New York City Transit Authority sold it to the government of New York City. After the city government sold the engine house in 1975, a "paper recycling center" operated in the building.:15
The Batcave became home to squatters in the early 2000s. The group of mainly homeless and runaway teenagers formed a community in the space, setting rules for conduct, including disallowing hard drug use, and organized tasks like composting and waste disposal. They set up toilets that operated with rainwater and even ran a power line from the Carroll Street Bridge to power a refrigerator and television.
Around this time, within the squatting community and then other locals, the building had begun to be known as the "Batcave," named for the bats claimed to have once lived there.
In 2006, the New York Daily News ran a sensational article about the space, characterizing it as violent, drug-addled, and dangerous. The reporter talked with people in their teens and twenties who told of doing drugs, panhandling, and stories about a homeless person thrown out a window and an addict who overdosed and was left on the street for police to find. The property owner, Shaya Boymelgreen, had plans to build a large condominium project called Gowanus Village on the land occupied by the building and adjacent lots. In response to the news, he had building security improved, doors welded shut, and hired a guard to keep the building clear.
Underground arts and urban exploration
As the Gowanus Village development plan failed to come to fruition, security again became lax. The Batcave became a popular location for graffiti artists, underground parties, concerts, and urban explorers in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The top of the building, facing 3rd Avenue, has displayed a variety of politically oriented messages painted by activists and artists.
In 2012, Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation, a nonprofit founded by philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz, purchased the property for $7 million, with initial plans to turn it into studio space for artists. For a few years after the purchase, Rechnitz and associates discussed the future of the building with local artists, discovering a greater need for a space focused on the production and fabrication of art rather than studio space. Under the name Powerhouse Workshop, it is planned to include space and equipment for woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, printmaking, and fiber arts, as well as exhibition space.
Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron is leading the renovation and the executive architects on the project are adaptive reuse and preservation experts, PBDW Architects (Platt Byard Dovell White Architects) Herzog & de Meuron is known for many high-profile projects in New York and internationally, including creating spaces for the arts like the Tate Modern in London, also built in a former power station. This is the second collaboration between the two architecture firms. Their first collaboration was the restoration and design of the Park Avenue Armory.
24/7 security, safety railings, and other security and safety measures have been put in place in preparation for redevelopment, but the building itself will remain standing and architects and developers have agreed to try to preserve as much of the graffiti on the interior as possible. Powerhouse Workshop is planned to open in 2021.
In October 2019, in advance of the planned rezoning of the area around the Gowanus Canal, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Gowanus Batcave and four other structures as official city landmarks.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a work now in the public domain: Murray, Thomas Edward (1910). "The Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company". Electric Power Plants: A Description of a Number of Power Stations. pp. 109–138.
- "Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) Central Power Station Engine House" (PDF). New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. October 29, 2019. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- "State RR Commissioners' Findings on BRT Service". Brooklyn Citizen. January 29, 1903. p. 7. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via newspapers.com .
- "Must Have More Power". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. January 1, 1901. p. 2. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via Brooklyn Public Library; newspapers.com .
- "New B.R.T Power House". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. January 20, 1902. p. 3. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via Brooklyn Public Library; newspapers.com .
- "Improved Power Facilities for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company" (PDF). The Street Railway Journal: 61. February 1903.
- "Improvements On BRT Delayed". Brooklyn Standard Union. July 17, 1903. p. 3. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via newspapers.com .
- "History". Powerhouse Workshop. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
- "BRT Co's Plant to Be The Greatest in the World". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. March 21, 1903. p. 9. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via Brooklyn Public Library; newspapers.com .
- "Half a Million for BRT Improvements". Brooklyn Times-Union. August 26, 1904. p. 3. Retrieved January 15, 2020 – via newspapers.com .
- "B.R.T Central Powerhouse: Historical Background Report" (PDF). Higgins & Quasebarth. January 2005. p. 5.
- Plitt, Amy (March 7, 2017). "Gowanus Bat Cave will transform into an art space designed by Herzog & de Meuron". Curbed New York.
- "Party's Over At Gowanus Batcave, But Mysterious Millionaire Will Make It "F*cking Cool"". Gothamist. March 11, 2013. Archived from the original on February 24, 2018. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
- Sederstrom, Jotham (October 23, 2006). "Homeless Rule at the 'Bat Cave'". New York Daily News.
- "Gowanus Building Updated for Wall Street Meltdown". Curbed New York. September 24, 2008.
- "Gowanus Building Seems to Have Gone Anti-Corporate". Curbed New York. July 31, 2008.
- Goodman, J. David (November 23, 2012). "The Mysterious Mr. Rechnitz". The New York Times.
- Chaban, Matt A. V. (March 7, 2017). "The Batcave, a Graffiti Landmark in Brooklyn, Grows Up". New York Times.
- "Ambitious, long-in-the-works plan to turn Gowanus Batcave into Artists Haven". Brownstoner.
- Plitt, Amy (November 1, 2017). "Gowanus Bat Cave's tranformation into a shiny new arts space is moving forward". Curbed New York.
- Sanders, Anna (October 29, 2019). "Five Gowanus buildings made landmarks ahead of rezoning". nydailynews.com. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- Murray, Thomas Edward (1910). "The Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company". Electric Power Plants: A Description of a Number of Power Stations. pp. 109–138. – A detailed, technical description of the power station as of 1910, written by the builder, American inventor and businessman Thomas E. Murray
- Powerhouse Workshop, official site
- Preserving a Brooklyn Temple of Graffiti, a 2017 New York Times video by Time Chaffee, Niko Koppel, and Kaitlyn Mullin