Atwater Kent Powerhouse, Philadelphia, PA
The Powerhouse is currently under consideration for listing onto the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A, because of its properties which are “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of American history.”
The Powerhouse was completed in 1929 and provided coal-fired steam heating to both the North and South Plants of the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company. Coal was the primary source of fuel for steam generation at the Powerhouse when it was completed. At an unknown date in the building’s history, the fuel source was converted to oil. When the South Plant was sold off, the Powerhouse was used to provide heat strictly for the North Plant. At present, the North Plant is scheduled for demolition upon completion of a new office building. In accordance with a Memorandum of Agreement between the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, the United States General Services Administration (current owner of the complex) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Powerhouse will remain architecturally intact to serve as a reminder of the facility that once covered 34 acres, employed over 12,000 people and produced over 6,000 radios per day during its brief life.
The Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company was once the largest manufacturer of radios in the world and its founder, Arthur Atwater Kent, was a prominent force in Philadelphia’s industrial development. Kent was a prolific inventor of electrical components and systems who obtained 93 patents over his career. He relocated the Kent Electric Manufacturing Company (formed in 1895) from Massachusetts to Philadelphia in 1902 and diversified from the production of fans and motors into the production of electrical components for automobiles. In 1905, he invented the Unisparker which combined ignition points, condenser, centrifugal advance mechanism, and distributor in one unit. This system was used in automobiles until the recent development of fully electronic systems. In 1921, Kent became fascinated with radios and quickly moved from the manufacture of components into the manufacture of complete radios. Kent brought numerous firsts to the radio marketplace, including radios operating on alternating current. He popularized one-dial tuning and the sheet metal cabinet, which further reduced production costs and expanded the low-end market.
In 1923, Kent began construction of a new manufacturing facility in northwest Philadelphia. The South Plant was constructed first and was followed by the North Plant in 1928. Construction of the Powerhouse followed immediately after the North Plant. The North and South Plants were connected by a pedestrian and vehicular bridge over Abbottsford Avenue (which separated them); the bridge was demolished with the construction of U.S. Route 1 in the late 1940s.
During the period of peak production at the North and South Plants, Kent spent millions of dollars on major advertising campaigns in print and on the radio. In 1925, he sponsored the popular “Atwater Kent Hour” radio program which featured leading musical talents of the day. Kent strongly believed in advertising and it kept him in position as the market leader at least until the Depression. Kent dissolved the company and auctioned off the equipment in 1936. In 1941, the U.S. Signal Corps acquired the North Plant for its Eastern Depot. After World War II, the property remained with the U.S. Government. It became the home of the Veterans Administration in 1949 and later housed The National Archives (1950s) and The U.S. Treasury (1960s).
Although the Powerhouse complies in its basic form to the functional requirements of a coal-burning power plant, it adopted architectural motifs and materials similar to those of the main plant. The Powerhouse does not contain the patented “Super-Span” roof system found in the North Plant; however, it is a largely unaltered example of an industrial building prototype, separated out from the primary buildings and given it its own distinct form as a power provider. In modern buildings, the power source is invisible.
- Architect: Ballinger Company
- Construction Date: 1929
- GSA Building Number: PA0603AT
- Landmark Status: Eligible for Listing in the National Register of Historic Places