Lower Manhattan has a new landmark: the 1888 Excelsior Power Company Building, at the corner of Gold and Fulton Streets. Described by the American Institute of Architect’s Guide to New York as, “a lusty Romanesque Revival brick monolith,” the structure boasts a storied past. It was commissioned by Martin Brown in the early years of the Gilded Age.
In the 1880s, City Hall was anxious to prevent Thomas Edison’s Electric Illuminating Company from gaining monopoly control over the new business of providing voltage to local businesses and residents. So, after the Wizard of Menlo Park opened his first Manhattan power station (on nearby Pearl Street), the City granted generating franchises to more than two dozen other firms.
This caught the eye of Brown, a hyperactive polymath and striver who would laugh at today’s Type-A personalities. A man who prided himself on knowing an opportunity when he saw one, Brown was already prominent in business (printing), commodities (he ran the Queens Ice Company), finance (serving as an executive with the Nineteenth Ward National Bank), public service (he was the City’s Fire Commissioner), and gadgetry (he invented a special type of steering wheel for fire trucks). Now, he decided to try his hand at the new-fangled technology of electrical energy. This led him to found the Excelsior Steam Power Company, which burned coal to turn water into steam and crank turbines, which generated electricity for buildings within a radius of a few hundred yards.
Needing a headquarters, he purchased land at 33-43 Gold Street. To design the structure, he hired a wealthy dilettante named William Milne Grinnell. Very few buildings by Grinnell survive today. This is due less to the ravages of time and changing fashion than to the fact that he almost never built any. Although trained as an architect at Yale, the independently wealthy Grinnell was more interested in collecting art and traveling the globe than he was in chasing commissions. Nonetheless, he agreed to sketch out the plans for what became Brown’s Excelsior Power Company Building.
Eleven years after the building opened in 1888, Excelsior was bought up by a consortium of gas companies, who were being forced out of the lighting business by electrical ventures. But in the decades that followed, a gold rush mentality led to redundant overcapacity in the electric sector, with the result that most of the firms founded in 1880s eventually folded. The wreckage of these firms, along with the gas companies, was reorganized (or “consolidated”) by the J.P. Morgan investment bank in 1901. Today, that company is known as ConEd.
So it was that ConEd came into possession of 33-43 Gold Street. In the years after World War Two, ConEd had switched to generating current at very large facilities, usually located far from the City, and no longer had any use for small, local power stations.
By the mid-1970s, the building was vacant and falling into disrepair. It was at this point, in 1977, that 33-43 Gold Street appeared for the first time on the City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s list of buildings being considered for legally protected status. And there it remained for months. And then years. And then decades. The Landmarks agency took no action on the matter for 39 years, until 2016. (In the meantime, resurgent land values in Lower Manhattan finally caused it to be converted to apartments in 1999, after extensive renovations.)
In January of this year, the panel briefly considered dropping the Excelsior building from its list of candidates for landmark status. But an outcry from preservationists turned back this proposal. At the same time, the Commission was coming under intense pressure from elected officials to begin clearing its docket of buildings that had been under consideration for inexplicable lengths of time. Thus, the Landmarks Preservation Commission turned its attention to Brown and Grinnell’s building once again, earlier this month. At its December 13 meeting, the Commission conferred landmark status on 33-43 Gold Street.