Riding into the city over the Williamsburg Bridge I’ll often glance at the clock tower that rises above Union Square, just to see how I’m doing on time. (I’m almost always early – curse you mama for the way you raised me!) But what is this clock tower I stare at? I realized the other day that I had no idea. That’s one of the funny things about living. I was going to say: “about living in the city,” but I think it’s true everywhere; the city just points it out more. We can have these daily relationships with various structures we don’t know anything about. It’s why ideally I would like to learn the history of every building that I walk by, just as I’d like to know the types of trees I pass on every block (a good guess here is that they’re London Plane, or maybe Ginkgo). For now I suppose I’ll settle for trying to get down the larger buildings, the signposts, the ones that you can’t help but see at various points and angles throughout your day.
The clock tower by Union Square, on 14th Street and Irving Place, is known today as the Con Edison tower. It was built in 1928, designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal fame (and also the original Chelsea Piers). The tower was just one part of Con Edison’s larger headquarters, which took up most of the block between 14th and 15th Street, and had been in various stages of construction since 1910. The original architect Henry Hardenbergh, better known for the Dakota Apartments and Plaza Hotel, designed a 12-story and then 18-story building on the site, but as Con Edison continued to grow they felt the need to build ever higher. They brought in Warren & Wetmore to design a tower that could stand out on the city skyline as a symbol of their company.
The tower was designed with a sixteen-foot-wide clock face on each of its four sides, a recessed loggia above that and on top of its pyramidal cap a gigantic 38-foot bronze lantern, about the size of a four story building. The tower was lit up at night with colored dials on the clock, a wash of changing colored light on the loggia, and five beacons inside the lantern: one shooting straight up, the others coming out the sides.
The intention of this light display was to advertise the wonders of electricity. The irony is that when the Con Edison tower was completed in 1928 the company was still known as the Consolidated Gas Company. Consolidated Gas had formed in 1884, with the merger of six of NYC’s independent gas companies, in large part as a response to the threat they saw posed by electricity. It didn’t take them long however to realize that they might be on the losing side of history and starting around 1900 Consolidated Gas began buying up their rivals – electric companies – most notably the New York Gas, Electric Light, Heat & Power Company, which itself held a controlling interest in Edison Electric (we’re getting deep into some corporate history here). Consolidated Gas then combined all its electric utilities into a subsidiary known as the New York Edison Company. In 1936 they officially changed their name to the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, at which point about 75 percent of their revenue came from electricity. Today they’re one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the United States, taking in approximately $14 billion a year. Well yeah, they send you a bill every month and you pay them. What else are you supposed to do?
(Originally posted Mar. 5th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)