Founded in 1891, the Potomac Electric Company merged with the Washington Railway and Electric Company to become the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) in 1902. In 1907, PEPCO established a new central generating power plant along Benning Road, and a series of substations to distribute the electricity throughout the city. Mostly, the substations are responsible for reducing the voltage transmitted from the generating plants and feeding the power to transformers near customers. Much of the sensitive equipment had to be placed under cover to protect it from the weather, while providing additional security and visual screening.
The styles of PEPCO’s substations reflected popular architectural philosophies of the time. For example, the earliest stations, built before 1928, were generally utilitarian buildings, or extensions of existing streetcar barns. But as PEPCO erected independent substations in the city’s expanding neighborhoods, it developed a policy of designing them with architectural sensitivity to the surroundings. This policy emanated from a 1906 proposal for this substation at Harvard Street and Sherman Avenue, which initially met community opposition.
In the period between 1929 and 1939, PEPCO hired architect Arthur B. Heaton (1875-1951) to design its buildings. Heaton elevated the company’s architectural standards and introduced a consistent Art Deco/Industrial Classicism, unifying them with a sort of corporate branding. This new aesthetic commenced with Heaton’s designs for PEPCO Substation No. 16 (1929; demolished) and No. 25 (1930) and continued through the decade.
As the development of suburban areas added to the demand for electrical distribution, PEPCO increasingly sited and designed substations to fit their neighborhoods. With World War II looming, the company showed a new sensitivity to system security. From 1939 to 1960, PEPCO architects designed substations to blend in architecturally with their surroundings and to decrease public awareness of them through the art of deception. Often designed to look like houses, substations might even have curtains and blinds in the windows, making it appear as if they were occupied by families. Commercial look-alike buildings, such as the Harrison Street substation, had display windows with changing displays advertising PEPCO, appliances, holidays, or the war effort. PEPCO constructed substations that blended into their surroundings throughout World War II and into the Cold War.
After 1960, PEPCO-designed substations no longer followed any prescribed aesthetic. The company continues to consider location, the character of the neighborhoods, and the technical requirements for delivering reliable electrical service in its design of new buildings.
DC Inventory: November 16, 2017