Brief History of Howard University Power Plant

The Howard University Power Plant, constructed in 1934. View toward northwest.

There are many examples of beautiful and historically important architecture on Howard University’s campus. One example that may be overlooked by many is the Howard University Power Plant, a structure designed to provide power to Howard constructed as part of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression. The power plant was designed by Albert I. Cassell in 1934. It’s a handsome Georgian Revival style building adapted in scale and configuration as a power plant. Of particular interest are the inclusion of a few low-relief Art Deco details on the building which allude to the buildings industrial use.

The Great Depression had a severe impact on Federal construction projects, and in the Washington, D.C. area this impact was acutely felt by efforts to expand Howard University and meet their growing needs. Two forward looking priorities – the construction of both a new library and a heat, light, and power plant – were placed in jeopardy in early 1932. Even after the Interior Department appropriations bill passed the House with an appropriation of $1,075,000 for Howard University, an amount $535,000 less than budget estimates for Howard, the Senate appropriations committee removed an additional $400,000 leaving only $675,000 for Howard’s needs. The Senate pointedly removed both the $300,000 budgeted for the heat, light, and power plant and the $100,000 required for the new library from the appropriations bill.

The Senate’s removal of the Howard power plant followed testimony from H. A. Brooks of the Potomac Electric Power Company who appeared before the Senate sub-committee and spoke in opposition to the construction of the power plant. Brooks told the sub-committee that PEPCO could furnish service at such a rate that no private power plant would be able to compete with it.

The Senate sub-committee restored funding for both the library and power plant in March 1932 following a lively debate, only to remove funding for the project again in April. Howard needed an advocate, and Representative Oscar Stanton De Priest rose to the occasion.

Oscar Stanton De Priest was a civil rights advocate from Chicago who served in the House of Representatives from Illinois. He  was the first African American to be elected to Congress from outside the southern states and the first in the 20th century. During his three terms, he was the only African American serving in Congress.

In December 1932, De Priest recommitted the Interior supply bill in the House of Representatives in order to reinsert $460,000 for a Howard power plant, a move that was rebuked in the House Appropriations Committee. Despite the opposition, Representative De Priest prevailed when the House voted 138 to 105 on December 27, 1932, to provide $460,000 in the Interior bill for the Howard University heating, lighting and power plant. De Priest considered the plant not only necessary for Howard, but also an opportunity for students to benefit scholastically.

The timing of funding for Howard could not have come at a better time as Congress began to focus on approved projects lacking funding for inclusion in the new Public Works Administration. In the first round of PWA projects, $3,474,347 was allocated for projects in the District of Columbia, and this included $948,811 for Howard University alone. The Howard projects included:

  • The Howard University Power Plant — $460,000;
  • A new chemistry building — $390,000; and,
  • Reconditioning existing buildings — $98,811.

Funding for the new chemistry building was increase by an additional $70,000 in September 1933, as the PWA prepared to issue contracts for the construction of both the chemistry and power plant at Howard.

Art Deco detail at top of facade, reinterpreting the Georgian swag motif as a gear, chain, and hooks.

Plans for the 100 foot square and 60 foot tall power plant were completed by Howard University instructor and architect Albert I. Cassell and submitted to the Fine Arts Commission for consideration on March 17, 1934. By September 1934 construction had begun on the site and progressed well.

The power plant was nearing completion by January 1936. It was an important part of Howard University’s 20-year physical development program. The plant was designed to serve the needs of both the University and Freedmen’s Hospital. Additionally, it was directly connected with the teaching program of the school of engineering and architecture, for purposes of demonstration and mechanical engineering apprenticeship. Upon the plants completion in the late summer of 1936, the total cost of construction amounted to $550,000.

The power plant was designed to have a capacity of 4,000 horse power. It also contrasted sharply with the usual coal-fired boilers in use in other local power plants as the Howard plant was equipped with high-rating oil-fired combustion units.

Upon its completion, the Howard University Power Plant became one of the first projects in the District of Columbia, and the nation, to be constructed through the Public Works Administration.

View of Howard University Power Plant toward the southwest.

References

“$948,811 for H.U. in Public Work Division.” Afro-American, July 22, 1933, p. 22.

“$3,474,347 Allocated for First Federal Projects Here.” The Washington Post, July 18, 1933, p. 1.

“Amendments Add $535,000 to Howard.” The Washington Post, March 15, 1932, p. 2.

“Appropriation at Howard is Only $675,000.” The Chicago Defender, April 16, 1932, p. 2.

“Arts Body Gets Design of Howard Power Plant.” The Washington Post, March 13, 1934, p. R9.

“Crowd Hears President at Howard U.” The Evening Star, October 27, 1936, p. A5.

“De Priest Explains Efforts in House.” The Washington Post, January 8, 1933, p. 4.

“De Priest’s H. U. Amendment Wins, 138-105.” Afro-American, December 31, 1932, p. 1.

“Fine Arts Body Will Consider Shaft Repairs.” The Washington Post, March 4, 1934, p. 13.

“H. U. Staff Trained for New Power Unit.” Afro-American, October 17, 1936, p. 21.

“Howard Gets Funds Under Recovery Act.” The Chicago Defender, September 16, 1933, p. 4.

“Howard to Begin 68th Year With Three New Dormitories.” The Washington Post, September 8, 1935, p. X8.

“Howard Project Inserted into Bill.” The Washington Post, December 28, 1932, p. 1.

“Howard U. Power Plant Nearly Ready for Use.” The Washington Post, January 18, 1936, p. 23.

“Howard University Cautions Students.” The Washington Post, October 1, 1933, p. 12.

“Howard’s New Power Plant Begun.” Afro-American, September 1, 1934, p. 20.

“New Buildings Show Advance at Howard U.” The Washington Post, September 9, 1934, p. S11.

“New Howard Univ. Power Plant Is Near Completion.” Afro-American, January 18, 1936, p. 15.

“Powerhouse at Howard U. Opposed.” Afro-American, March 12, 1932, p. 2.

“PWA Helped To Finance 3 Additions.” The Washington Post, September 13, 1936, p. F7.

“Roosevelt Vote Bid Called Aim Of Howard Talk.” The Washington Post, October 25, 1936, p. M1.

“Secretary Ickes’s Address at Howard.” Afro-American, October 31, 1936, p. 21.

“Yesterday in Congress.” The Washington Post, December 23, 1932, p. 2.

“Yesterday in Congress.” The Washington Post, December 29, 1932, p. 2.

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One Comment on “Brief History of Howard University Power Plant”

  1. Jose vicarz Says:

    Fantastic brief history, thank you!


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