Garfield Substation Part 3: Design and Use

The Garfield Substation is located at 3253-3255 Garfield Avenue South in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Garfield Substation was designed in the Renaissance Revival style – a purposeful design decision intended to garner neighborhood support for the substation and to communicate Minneapolis General Electric Company’s goal of electrifying the entire city. The architectural language used at the Garfield Substation is representative of a design decision that was typical of electrical architecture throughout the country. According to historian David Nye, “Before the advent of industrial design, electrical corporations and utilities had emphasized the solid, durable reality of their products. They did not present them as being revolutionary, but rather as ‘natural’… neither unfamiliar nor sensational, but rather safe, familiar, and comfortable.”[1] By constructing “attractive transformer substations,” such as the Garfield Substation, the Minneapolis General Electric Company was able to electrify Minneapolis’s residential neighborhoods.[2]

Our two previous posts in this series are:

Part 1: Electric Substations and the Development of Electric Power in Minneapolis

Part 2: The Minneapolis General Electric Company

The Garfield Substation

Construction

In September of 1909, the Minneapolis General Electric Company constructed a 22 foot by 19 foot frame transformer substation at 3247-3255 Garfield Avenue South for a cost of $400. The substation was an open air transformer, or distribution, substation that reduced the 13,800 volt current that it received from Substation A to a pressure that could be distributed to street lamps and residences in the surrounding neighborhood.[3] Six months later, in April of 1910, the company applied for a building permit for a 27.8 foot by 39.8 foot brick substation for the Garfield Avenue location. The substation was “designed by the engineering department of the Minneapolis General Electric Company” and was featured in the December 1910 issue of Electrical World.

According to the article, “Distributing Substation at Minneapolis,”

The Minneapolis General Electric Company is erecting attractive transformer substations…in outlying districts of the city, for reducing its 13,200-volt intramural transmission potential to the distribution pressure, 2,400 volts. The substation…was designed for containing two 500-kw banks of step-down transformers, one of which is already installed. The building is of brown pressed brick trimmed with Bedford limestone.[4]

Because of the substation’s location in a residential neighborhood, most of the transmission cables were buried underground. The substation was constructed in the Lyn Lake neighborhood at Garfield Avenue South, adjacent to residential dwellings. It housed switchboard equipment and feeder regulators for 9 lighting circuits and 18 mercury arc rectifiers and transformers supplying 850 street arc lamps. It housed four 1,000 KW Westinghouse transformers with a capacity of 13,200 kilowatts and 2,300 volts. Garfield Substation was the sole provider of electricity for Minneapolis street lights at the time of its construction and also supplied power to the southern end of the city.[5]

Design

The Garfield Substation was articulated in the Renaissance Revival style. Renaissance Revival was a popular architectural style from the late 1890s through the 1930s. The style was most often employed in urban settings and was a particularly popular choice for civic buildings, including libraries, schools, and courthouses.[6] Through the incorporation of the Renaissance Revival style, a Republican architectural language commonly associated with prized neighborhood civic structures such as schools, post offices, and libraries, the Minneapolis General Electric Company proclaimed that electricity was safe, stable, and available to everyone. At the Garfield Substation, brown pressed brick, limestone, tall round topped windows, and a detailed cornice define the building’s exterior. 

Minneapolis General Electric’s decision to design enclosed substations in the Renaissance Revival style speaks to the company’s expansion goals. By “erecting attractive transformer substations” in residential neighborhoods, Minneapolis General Electric was trying to garner support for its expanding electrical services. According to Gale Whitney’s work on another Minneapolis substation, “the intent of the power industry was to create a positive image in the community, an image of lasting utility.”[7]

In the nascent years of the electrification of the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis General Electric Company sought to be a good neighbor and to give electricity a positive image. The arc lamps that the City of Minneapolis hired Minneapolis General Electric to install were often unreliable; “lightning threatened to create fires and bad weather… knocked out power.”[8] As late as 1923, forty years after the city’s first arc lights were installed, the mayor of Minneapolis spoke out against their installation, calling them “unsightly and dangerous wooden poles, strung with high-power overhead electrical wires.”[9] Therefore, the design of an attractive building, such as Garfield Substation, to house industrial equipment, including oil switches, transformers, magnetic-arc rectifiers, and other mechanical equipment, benefited the neighborhood and disguised the potentially frightening-looking equipment that made the distribution of electricity possible.

Minneapolis General Electric constructed three substations in the Renaissance Revival style: Substation A (1906, now demolished), the Hiawatha Substation (1916, extant), and the Garfield Substation.

Failure of the Main Street Power Plant

The Garfield Substation proved its value a month after the article about its construction appeared in Electrical World. On January 6, 1911, the Main Street Power Plant was destroyed by a fire that was caused by a short circuit in the transmission line that connected the plant to Substation A. The fire, which included “three separate explosions [that] were accompanied by ear-splitting cracks and vivid displays of blue electric flame,” shut off electricity throughout the city.[10] In order to restore power to parts of the 8th and 13th Wards, the Garfield Substation was connected directly to the plant in Taylor’s Falls. While a new main distribution station and two additional substations were constructed, the Garfield Substation handled much of the city’s power distribution. The Riverside Steam Station (extant), which replaced the Main Street Power Plant, was operational by August of 1911. Following the construction of the new Riverside Steam Station, substations, including Garfield Substation, continued to play a key role in protecting the city’s power grid from failure.

Expansion

As electricity gained acceptance—and as electric companies introduced consumers to new time saving appliances like the electric iron—the demands on the Garfield Substation increased.[11]  In 1914, Minneapolis General Electric constructed a two-bay addition to the substation. The addition was seamless, with the east exterior wall removed and construction drawings calling for construction crews to “key old wall and place…dowels…for bonding to new work.”[12] The addition was designed by the engineering firm of H.M. Byllesby & Company, which was a subsidiary of Northern States Power, Minneapolis General Electric’s parent company. 

During the 1914 expansion, Minneapolis General Electric drilled a 496 foot artesian cooling well for the substation. As another goodwill gesture to the surrounding neighborhood, Minneapolis General Electric installed a community fountain along 33rd Street. Residents could fill water containers at the white tile fountain, which “became famous in the neighborhood”.[13] An inscription plate on the fountain read “Presented to the Citizens of Minneapolis by the Minneapolis General Electric Company.”[14] The well was a community fixture until it was removed in 1940.

According to a 1915 report by Northern States Power Company, the Garfield Substation was one of four major power sources for the city (along with Substation A, the substation at the company headquarters, and a substation at the “city limits” in Coon Rapids), with twenty-two smaller substations supplying alternating current throughout Minneapolis. The key role that the Garfield Substation played in the Minneapolis power grid required that the building be expanded a second time resulting in a three-bay addition that was constructed in 1916. As with the earlier addition, the 1916 construction expanded the building further to the east and was so skillfully added that it was difficult to distinguish from the earlier construction. In 1916, Minneapolis General Electric Company once again used the architectural language of the Renaissance Revival when it constructed the Hiawatha Substation (extant) in an industrial area near the Acme Foundry at Hiawatha Avenue and East 32nd Street

The Garfield Substation continued to serve as an important distribution station for Minneapolis General Electric and Northern States Power until the late 1980s, when growth in Minneapolis exceeded the ability of existing infrastructure to support the city’s power needs. Between 1990 and 2007, Northern States Power phased out its 4.16 KV distribution substations, including the Garfield Substation and the Hiawatha Substation, in favor of more efficient equipment.

Conclusion

Through historical research and documentation, PVN was able to demonstrate that the Garfield Substation is historically significant and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Garfield Substation is locally significant under NRHP Criterion C as a representation of the enclosed neighborhood transformer substation, a building type designed to be both functional and aesthetically appropriate while distributing electricity to the surrounding residential neighborhood. 

[1] David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 353.

[2] “Distributing Substation at Minneapolis,” Electrical World 56 (December 1, 1910), 1291, https://books.google.com/.

[3] Minneapolis Building Permit B86806, September 2, 1909.

[4] “Distributing Station at Minneapolis,” Electrical World 56, (December, 1910), 1291.

[5] “Annual Report Northern States Power Company (of Delaware) for the Year Ended December,” (1915): 31-32, http://reflections.mndigital.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/mpls/id/3706/rec/5.

[6] “Italian Renaissance Revival,” Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, http://www.dahp.wa.gov/styles/italian-renissance-revival

[7] Gale Whitney, “Sub-station A: Twin Cities Industry Project” (Master’s Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1981), 1.

[8] Carol Pine, Northern States People: The Past 70 Years (St. Paul: Northern Central Publishing, 1979).

[9] “Early Lighting in Minneapolis,” (Writers Project, Minneapolis, 1936), James K. Hosmer Special Collections, Hennepin County Library.

[10] “Explosion Ties Up and Darkens City,” Municipal Journal no. 30 (1911), 91.

[11] “Notice to Customers,” Minneapolis Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), June 28, 1914.

[12] H.M. Byllesby & Company, “Minneapolis General Electric Company Garfield Sub-Station 1914 Extension, Foundation, Basement, 1st & 2nd Floor Plans,” Sheet A.

[13] “Minneapolis Company Presents Fountain to Public,” Electrical World, no. 66 (1915), 11.

[14] Ibid.

PVN StaffGarfield Substation