Faux homes help new light rail infrastructure blend in D.C. suburbs

Possible Purple Line substation house. MTA photo.

Possible Purple Line substation house. MTA photo.

The Purple Line is a proposed 16-mile light rail corridor. Once completed, it will link suburban communities north of the nation’s capital in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. First proposed more than a decade ago, state officials breathed new life into the project in 2007 to connect Metro transit stations in New Carrolton and Bethesda as well as the business districts between the two communities.

Planning for the project, including engineering and environmental studies, are underway. Construction could begin as early as 2015 if funding is secured.

Purple Line route. MTA map.

Purple Line route. MTA map.

The Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 18 power substations, 14 signal bungalows (small buildings with radio and signal equipment), and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda’s central business district. Residents who live along the proposed alignment told the Washington Post that they are concerned about potential impacts from the power facilities known as traction power substations.

Spaced at approximately one mile intervals along the route, the facilities will house equipment to convert alternating current (AC) carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current (DC) used by trains. MTA documents indicate that they typically have a footprint that measures 14 by 52 feet.

Because they are industrial structures with the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential neighborhoods, some residents are concerned. Earlier this year, Silver Spring residents began writing MTA planners requesting more information about the facilities.

“They are located in residential neighborhoods throughout the US and world,” MTA Purple Line project manager Mike Madden wrote to a Silver Spring resident in an April 2013 email that was posted to various community listservs.

The Purple Line is a federal aid transportation project and MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement before construction could begin. A Draft EIS was released in 2008 and the Final EIS was released last month. According to the latest document, which is open for public review and comments until October 21, the line’s preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit “transformer hum” sounds.

MTA plans to mitigate visual and noise impacts in the residential neighborhoods by using designs to minimize the intrusions. Insulation will prevent the escape of equipment noise and exteriors can be camouflaged to make the buildings appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer [PDF] on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, “The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment.”

Traction Power Substation, Central Corridor LRT (Minnesota). CCLRT on flickr.

Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. Silver Spring resident Anne Edwards, in her interview with the Post earlier this week, described the substation proposed for the corridor between Greenbrier Drive and Cloverfield Road as an “industrial monstrosity.”

In the April 2013 email to the Silver Spring resident, Madden provided more detail about the substation’s faux residential design. “They can be designed to be more square in shape which would make it look more like a house than a long rectangular structure,” he wrote. “The area around it does not have to be fully paved. We do need an access drive, but it can have a ‘lawn’ and landscaping.”

Possible Purple Line substation house. MTA photo.

Possible Purple Line substation house. MTA photo.

The substation designs MTA distributed include one for a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Also under consideration are Colonial Revival designs that simulate earlier suburban homes. If built, the substations would look like their neighbors. That’s the goal. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.

New York City subway power generating substation. Photo posted at ycsubway.org.

Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City’s subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne’s 2002 book, New York’s Forgotten Substations.

In 1987 Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called “bungalow style substations,” throughout Toronto. “These stations, which have transforming and switching functions, were constructed in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods,” Collyer wrote in 2006.

555 Spadina. Canadian transformer house. Photo by Robin Collyer, 1987. Credit: CCCA Canadian Art Database

555 Spadina. Canadian transformer house. Photo by Robin Collyer, 1987. Credit: CCCA Canadian Art Database.

Closer to home, as early as the 1930s, PEPCO was building transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on PEPCO’s program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. PEPCO employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites and then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.

Washington Post cartoon. "These Homes are Really Electrifying," April 4, 1954.

Washington Post cartoon. “These Homes are Really Electrifying,” April 4, 1954.

Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren’t limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine treesmonopinesas well as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There’s even a monopine at Mount Vernon.

Montgomery County Trolley Museum monopine. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County Trolley Museum monopine. Photo by the author.

One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is Tenleytown’s 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower’s visual impact to the established neighborhood. One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.

1945 Western Union microwave terminal rendering showing clock on facade. Credit: Western Union Telegraph Company.

1945 Western Union microwave terminal rendering showing clock on facade. Credit: Western Union Telegraph Company.

Western Union Tenley Site. Photo by David S. Rotenstein, 2002.

Western Union Tenley Site, as built. Photo by the author, 2002.

It’s far too soon to know whether the Purple Line’s faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied “real” homes. MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won’t be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And, it’s not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.

© 2013 D.S. Rotenstein

3 thoughts on “Faux homes help new light rail infrastructure blend in D.C. suburbs

  1. proposed constructing a light rail line between Union Station and St. Elizabeths Hospital. The line — whose route was not proposed — would more directly link the growing Union Station area with the large Department of Homeland Security workforce headquarters being built on the St. Elizabeths campus, while encouraging use of the Capitol Riverfront area (which itself began undergoing a major redevelopment). Capitol Riverfront officials said there had been no discussions about whether the proposed light rail link would be part of the DC Streetcar system or a separate transportation component.

  2. Many of PEPCO’s 1930’s substation houses are now actual homes. I own one and it makes an awesome home! The walls are 18 to 24 inches thick and the roof consists of steel beams covered with 8 inch concrete pads. We did not know it was a substation until the realtor told us about it’s former life.

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