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Disguised "houses" help Purple Line blend into neighborhoods

To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.

"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.

Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.

Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."

Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for 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 the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer 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."

Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.

A traction power substation in Minneapolis. Photo from MTA.

In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.

Possible Purple Line substation house. Photo from MTA.

The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. 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.

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. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.

Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. 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, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.

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 trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.

A "monopine" at the Montgomery County Trolley Museum. Photo by the author.

One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. 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 faÁade 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.

The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.

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.

David Rotenstein is the proprietor of a historical research consulting service based in Silver Spring and blogs about history and culture in the Greater Washington region and beyond. 


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Make it a colonial, and it'll blend right in with the other 1,968,232 other colonial houses in the DC area.

by Crickey7 on Sep 19, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

The Baltimore Transit Company, among others, did similar such things way back when. One such station remains, and the shell was substantial enough to allow for adaptive reuse after it was no longer needed in the late 1950's.,-76.551935&spn=0.00358,0.006968&t=m&z=18&layer=c&cbll=39.350736,-76.5519&panoid=v-Rp_IsiaeBt4QnEEEqGrQ&cbp=12,11.97,,0,2.22

by A. P. on Sep 19, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

The Payne link for forgotten NY Substations leads to the article on MoCo McMansions.

Would be really interested to know if any of the old Pepco blended substations survive, and as well, if Capital Transit had similar structures, and whether any have survived for reuse.

by A. P. on Sep 19, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport


I just fixed it. Thanks for letting us know!

by dan reed! on Sep 19, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

I could have sworn I saw a substation house along the WB&A Rail Trail before, but I can't for the life of me find it on Google Maps. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe they're just that well disguised...

by pdovak on Sep 19, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

Pepco did this for years to hide its residential substation. My father -- who worked for Pepco for 42 years -- once told me the story of the neighbors who left a food basket on the doorstep of one of the "houses," because they thought that someone had died, since all these men in suits kept coming to visit.

by Morgan on Sep 19, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

@A.P. - I'm not sure about the smaller colonials but back in 2011 Silver Spring Singular wrote a post on transformer houses that included a disguised building in D.C.

by David Rotenstein on Sep 19, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

Fascinating post!

I just moved back to suburban MD from Boston after four years up there, where I regularly took the MBTA green line trolley/light rail lines. Just curious, but does anyone know how they handled these substations? I don't recall seeing them out in the open.

by AL on Sep 19, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

There's one of these in N. Arlington off of Old Glebe Rd.

by Sam on Sep 19, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

Wanna have some fun? Google "Purple Line Boondogle" just to see how many time this word has been used by oopponetns to describe it ;)

by Woodsider on Sep 19, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

Not completely related, but someone interesting with it's DC connection. There's a mini Washington Monument disguising a cell phone tower in Madison, MS.

by Robby on Sep 19, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

I hope somebody from Pepco comes over during Halloween to hand out candy so the "house" doesn't get TP'ed.

by 17BobTrey0 on Sep 19, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

NYC Transit has a working substation behind the façade of a Brooklyn brownstone in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. There are also great looking early 20th century substation buildings (with modern equipment inside) scattered around Manhattan; built in the days when transit agencies spent money on architectural finishes for exteriors of their buildings. Many NYC Transit substations are buried in streetbeds, a rather expensive solution to the siting issue.

by Steve Strauss on Sep 19, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

Mr. Rotenstein, I am the Anne Edwards whom you quote out of context by lifting from the Washington Post story without verifying the quote with me. I am, by the way, even though you didn't ask, a supporter of the Purple Line.

My neighbors and I, though, are NOT supporters of what the Purple Line is planning as of right now. OF COURSE they have to power the trains, but it does NOT have to be so ugly, so incongruous, so not acceptable. Period.

We want them to do a better design job. They want to do the right thing, but they are, absolutely, not there yet.

We are asking for a Purple Line that is a showpiece, that we can be proud of, not that makes us cringe.

This is a WIDE open issue that we are all looking for happy resolution.

This is the FIRST time MTA has faced this high profile a situation for placing a traction Power Substation in an overwhelmingly residential area. The first time. MTA has brushed near other residences, gone behind houses, but mostly these big units are put (or planned for) alongside long time track beds, on the edges of, or smack in, commercial, business and industrial districts. Many are hidden off road in stands of woods. This is the ONLY one in so "visually sensitive" a setting (MTA's language, not mine).

And there are PLENTY of options: Move it a few 100 feet to a more appropriate setting. or BURY it, an increasingly popular option in populated areas. If there is a water table issue, well, put in a liner.

Anaheim California has a gorgeous setting where the power substation is buried under a city park. Beautiful. There is even one, we learn, in reports entitled "The Neighborly Substation", under Leicester Square in London.

And yes, there are a number of substations quietly hidden on the first floor of city buildings in urban cores. Walking down a city street, solid block of buildings, one would not know where the substation is. BUT, that is a different planet from installing a large lifeless substation in the midst of a wide wide area of single family homes on a vibrant street.

And for every solution suggested, there can be an engineering challenge. MOVING IT AND BURYING IT is what the civic association voted for, with endorsement from others. When a countering response comes in that it "can't" be moved.... well, of course it can be moved. Reality is, were there a graveyard on that site, the engineers would figure something else out. We don't let anyone belittle MTA's smart engineers by using phrases like "not possible".

What solutions will take, however, is money that Maryland (and that would primarily be our tax money) did not intend to spend in this part of Montgomery County. Just a fact. It is being spent elsewhere in this county, but, not here.

Maryland IS choosing better options, more expensive options for other parts of the Purple Line that it calls "higher investment options", which means they are not required by engineering but they are needed to make the Purple Line compatible with its surroundings.

And GOOD, that is what SHOULD happen. And we just want to be one of those compatible places.

What started as one, and has become FOUR, civic associations that encompass the residential stretch of Wayne Avenue are in close communication to support and assist each other where our goals so frequently meet for a great Purple Line. It is called the Residential Wayne Avenue Working Group for Purple Line Design.

I really read this site and these blogs. If any of the regular readers, in simple neighborliness, has an idea, a parallel at which we should all look, any advice, it would be very gratefully received.

Our group can be reached at

Thank you for your time.

by A. Edwards on Sep 19, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

Not a substation, but there is a famous example of fake facades being used to hide the exposed sections of the cut-and-cover subsurface Underground lines dating back to the 1860s. Check it out:

by Reza on Sep 19, 2013 1:45 pm • linkreport

@A. Edwards:
If any of the regular readers, in simple neighborliness, has an idea, a parallel at which we should all look, any advice, it would be very gratefully received.
What do you think of the ideas mentioned in the post above? What would be unacceptable about a proposed substation built in the style of houses in the neighborhood?

I guess I'm not seeing how the MTA's proposal--which is to make it look like a house, sited on what is now a vacant lot on a four lane road--affects the neighborhood much at all. You say you disagree with calling it an "industrial monstrosity," as quoted in the article. So what is your concern?

by Gray on Sep 19, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

@Anne Edwards

Thanks for commenting. I edited David's post and found no problem with him quoting from the Washington Post. Because the original reporter is responsible for getting your consent to quote you, it's implied that anyone has the right to quote from that article, provided it's attributed to that publication, with David did.

I live off of Wayne Avenue and I share your support of the Purple Line and your concerns about ensuring it is a good neighbor. I'm actually not sure how your quote in the Post misrepresents the sentiments you're expressing here. Many of our neighbors have said similar things about the proposed traction power substation, which is part of the reason why the MTA wants to help it blend into its surroundings.

I can't speak for MTA, but I would guess that burying the substation would be prohibitively expensive, especially when there are cheaper alternatives that can do the same thing, like disguising the substation as a house or another kind of building. The benefits of having the Purple Line far outweigh the minor inconvenience of having a mechanical structure roughly the size of a single-wide trailer on a street where I sometimes walk.

You might know the house at the corner of Fenton Street and Philadelphia Avenue as you're heading into Takoma Park. Pepco built that house to disguise its mechanical operations. It's actually a house now, but even in its former use I bet you'd never notice it.

I walk by the vacant lot where the substation would go all the time and, frankly, I would welcome a disguised house there just like the ones in David's post. Better yet, I look forward to riding past it on the Purple Line.

by dan reed! on Sep 19, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

@Anne Edwards

I took a shortcut across the empty log twice last month, taking a shortcut from Greenbrier to Wayne Avenue while walking toward downtown with my dog. This was before I became aware a substation was proposed for this site.

The site struck me then as an empty and unattractive lot. It apparently has no value for a house since it was bounded on three sides by streets. Wayne Avenue is a four lane roadway busy with motor vehicle traffic, and I would hardly describe this location as "vibrant".

I guess I just don't see what you see here. A substation designed to look like a small house could fit in very well at this site.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Sep 19, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

Oops, "empty log" is "empty lot".

by Wayne Phyillaier on Sep 19, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

I believe this is another Pepco house at Wisconsin Ave. and Fulton:

by EliG on Sep 19, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

I live in one of the former Pepco substations in SS. The house was built in the 1930's and was converted to a residence in the mid 1970's. There are a few details that set our house apart from the neighbors but most people can't tell it used to be an electric substation. On the plus size, we have some cool features like a concrete roof held up steel girders, and three fake windows.

There's about 15-20 in the Md/DC area that I've counted (side hobby) but there are a few that are still being used as substations-there are two on either side of Georgia Ave just north of the Glenmont Metro. I think these will blend in just fine if Pepco was to bring these substations back.

by RedVox on Sep 19, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

This "small house" design by the way, would be twice as long as any other house on the block. Hence small is the wrong word. Out of place due to the scale would be more accurate.

by Paul on Sep 19, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

This "small house" design by the way, would be twice as long as any other house on the block.
Really? The above post says it would be 50 feet wide. All of the houses on the block are no wider than 25 feet?

At Wayne and Cloverfield, there are multiple apartment buildings on the other side of the street that are quite a bit wider than 50 feet. And the vast majority of colonials on Wayne Ave. have bump-outs on at least one side, making them quite a bit wider than the 20-30 feet they started with.

by Gray on Sep 19, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

Paul, that's completely false. This building sits exactly one block from the proposed substation building.,-76.981201&spn=0.476229,0.719604&cbp=12,326.78,,1,2.31&layer=c&panoid=zc0ejqMe8H0dzLIFi2VSjg&cbll=38.99695,-77.022172&dg=opt&t=h&z=11

by JayTee on Sep 19, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

Here is a view of the proposed substation site itself, with it's next-door building (a multi-dwelling senior assisted living facility) in the foreground.,-77.020319&spn=0.000934,0.001405&cbp=12,0.07,,0,0&layer=c&panoid=1KR8Mh0RngxaMrDNE9gWSA&cbll=38.998286,-77.020655&dg=opt&t=h&z=20

Paul, can you at least pretend to be honest?

by JayTee on Sep 19, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport

Will the MTA allow nearby neighbors to beautify by planting flowers in the front? What about allowing neighbors to use sunny back yards for vegetables or fruit trees? If I lived near one of these I would want to plant on it.

by Tina on Sep 19, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

Great idea. No reason not to do so, unless they're worried about people walking over the lawn and such... not like they could prevent that in the first place, and community members caring for a garden would be far more efficient and better at upkeep than the MTA.

by ImThat1Guy on Sep 19, 2013 7:01 pm • linkreport

Ok, I learned something new today - the DC area is filled with transformer houses that are more than meet the eye.

by Kolohe on Sep 19, 2013 7:05 pm • linkreport

I remember two of these houses - one in Kensington at the intersection of Saul Road and Cable Drive, and another on Jones Bridge Road at the railroad tracks where the Capital Crescent Trail. Pepco upgraded its system in the mid-1970s and these were sold and converted into residences.

The one in Kensington was in the very Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Byeford, and locals joked that the residents of that house were "the Powers".

by Frank IBC on Sep 19, 2013 9:19 pm • linkreport

I think that there was another one at the corner of Howard and Armory Avenues in Kensington, next to the old clock shop and beauty parlor, across from the old gas station. I don't think the electrical systems were as thoroughly concealed as in the first two I listed.

by Frank IBC on Sep 19, 2013 9:25 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised that only one person (Reza) mentioned London which has had similar disguised buildings but for a different use to hide the smoke coming out of the ground from back when the Underground used steam engines.

by kk on Sep 20, 2013 2:43 am • linkreport

This seems like the perfect place for a sub-station, as long as there are no noise and health issues for the neighbors. It's very exposed as someone mentioned so the design should be attractive from every angle. Considering it's a one house potamkin village, that shouldn't be too hard. There's even a kind of mediteranean/Bauhaus home across the street, but I'm guessing to be safe it's best to go with a 1930's colonial look. It would be nice to have some monster trees planted here also.

by Thayer-D on Sep 20, 2013 6:17 am • linkreport

This 1910 streetcar substation in the woods in Philadelphia is a beauty:

If designed correctly, the Wayne Ave. substation could also shield neighbors from some of the noise of the streetcar and other traffic.

by Laurence Aurbach on Sep 20, 2013 8:06 am • linkreport

Wow Laurence, that one's a beauty! All things being equal, this could actually beautify Wayne Ave.

by Thayer-D on Sep 20, 2013 8:09 am • linkreport

From A Edwards again -- your comments are really great. Thank you. There are some very good ideas in there, giving us ideas.

I am not being argumentative, only thoughtful, since we are still looking for the right answer.

I would offer that there are issues, legitimate ones, around the Potemkin house in this kind of neighborhood, with having a permanently unoccupied building in the midst of homes.

I am sure you wouldn't, but, please don't, underestimate the lively population of seniors at Springvale Terrace: It's their neighborhood also.

I would also offer that we have learned that burying a substation is not always, not necessarily, "prohibitively" expensive, and can be a very good idea on a long arc, not just the short one, since burying means the parcel remains available for other uses; an above ground unit, what ever its housing, takes the parcel out of commission for anything else, period. There are cities where elected councils are instructing their transit agencies to bury these things to leave the land available for other uses.

And there are some things that MTA is choosing to build with Purple Line money, big-bucks-items, that are optional, that are being done to make the areas nicer, and that are far more expensive than burying a substation. I don't think it needs to be either/or: We ALL deserve a good looking Purple Line.

Nope, that lot is not the prettiest tract. It is an orphan that we, the locals, have cared for for decades. It has been abandoned by the county for a very long time. Owners, and sometimes neighbors, have done the upkeep for decades. Once there was a wonderful family living there, nearly 30 years ago, who did plant a kitchen garden out there: It was terrific. The garden went with them when they moved. Subsequent dwellers were just too busy.

I do suggest that the person who wrote that he doesn't think the street is particularly vibrant might want to spend a little more time watching it go through its day. It's a marvelous transitway for a lot more than traffic. It is very busy at rush hours, traffic is steady, but at other times, it is a pretty peaceful street. Strollers, skaters, bikers, walkers, shoppers, schoolkids. It is nice.

I am glad people are now dialed into this issue. It is going to take a lot of good ideas to do this one right.


by A. Edwards on Sep 20, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport

I would offer that there are issues, legitimate ones, around the Potemkin house in this kind of neighborhood, with having a permanently unoccupied building in the midst of homes.

Don't people go in and out of it during the day? People working and so forth? That would keep the house occupied during the day and every one else can watch the hood when they're home from work.

by drumz on Sep 20, 2013 1:52 pm • linkreport

I would offer that there are issues, legitimate ones, around the Potemkin house in this kind of neighborhood, with having a permanently unoccupied building in the midst of homes.

Such as?

burying means the parcel remains available for other uses

Other uses like what? A garden that's so important that nobody has bothered to plant anything there for 30 years?

There are cities where elected councils are instructing their transit agencies to bury these things to leave the land available for other uses.

There are? Where?

And there are some things that MTA is choosing to build with Purple Line money, big-bucks-items, that are optional, that are being done to make the areas nicer, and that are far more expensive than burying a substation.

Such as?

Man it is easy to make an argument when you just spout platitudes instead of offering solutions. Seems to me this is a "this is different and therefore must be bad" situation.

Personally, I would think that the owner directly adjacent to the property would prefer an above-ground option disguised as a house with plantings around it, since it would block a bunch of traffic noise.

by MLD on Sep 20, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

It's always interesting to see people make a big deal about some of the support infrastructure for a project like this. It's easy to indentify because it will be new, and therefore it represents a change. Once you kick in the all-too-human reactions and loss aversion, it is understandable why people are not eager to embrace this change.

That said, it is a textbook case of NIMBYism. Everyone enjoys the benefits of electricty, but the distribution of that electrical power requires infrastructure. Same can be said of any number of other public services: waste, water, power, gas, transportation, communications, etc.

The thing is, the support infrastructure for all of these systems is woven into our landscape so well that we often don't even notice that it is there - while still taking the benefits for granted.

Once something has been there, we won't even notice.

Zach Schrag's history of the Metro talks about the neighborhood opposition to tunnels beneath neighborhoods (not even in station areas), and how the vent shafts and other infrastructure that now seamlessly blends into the landscape was quite the battle to implement.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't work to mitigate the impact of these structures - we should. That example of the beautiful traction power substation from Philadelphia around the turn of the last century shows that this is not a new problem.

This, too, shall pass.

by Alex B. on Sep 20, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Echoing the above comment about how it's not super helpful just to spout platitudes without proposing any real solutions or explaining why concrete proposals are bad ideas...
I am glad people are now dialed into this issue. It is going to take a lot of good ideas to do this one right.
Is it really? There are lots of good ideas written directly above where you posted this, and yet you haven't explained why those ideas are somehow insufficient.

You keep saying that you want more money spent, but that seems to be just because you want it buried. What will burying buy that a building won't?

Most would argue that a well-maintained building taking the form of neighborhood houses would be quite a bit better than an empty lot. Do you have any counter-argument to that?

by Gray on Sep 20, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

Is there a list of these so called "Electric Houses" built by Pepco? I have been seeking them out for years. Every now an then I come across a new one that I never new existed.

by Cyrus on Sep 23, 2013 1:15 am • linkreport

I'm amused by the idea of religious missionaries knocking on the doors of these fake houses and attempting to their residents. Perhaps some of the transformers will convert from AC to DC. :-)

by Mike on Sep 23, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

isn't the Montgomery County Trolley Museum (mentioned in the monopine caption) technically the National Capital Trolley Museum?

by perpmac on Sep 23, 2013 1:36 pm • linkreport

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