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Steam Heat: The Gilded Age miracle that keeps New York warm

PODCAST It’s hot in the city — even during the coldest winter months, thanks to the most elemental of resources: steam heat.

EPISODE 347 This is the story of the innovative heating plan first introduced on a grand scale here in New York City in the 1880s, a plan which today heats many of Manhattan’s most famous — and tallest — landmarks.

While most buildings in Manhattan derive heat from a private source (most often furnaces, boilers and radiators), some of the largest structures actually get heat from the city.

If you’ve worked in a large Midtown office building, visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art or had your clothes dry cleaned in Manhattan, you’ve experienced steam distributed through Con Ed’s steam service through a system known as district heating.

Because of steam, the city’s skyline isn’t filled with thousands of chimneys, belching black smoke into the sky.

FEATURING An interview with Frank Cuomo, the director of steam operations at ConEd, who will help explain to us how the city produces steam today and how customers use it.

PLUS We answer some pressing questions about city heat. Why is there no steam service in the other four boroughs? Why does your radiator clang loudly at night? And what’s the function of those orange and white chimneys on the street?

Listen today on your favorite podcast player. Or play it directly from here:


Harpers Weekly 1876 — An illustration of unfortunate people, warming themselves from steam coming out of a grate. The printing shop in the picture evidently has it own boiler system.
An illustration of Birdsill Holly and the installation of the first steam pipe system in Lockport.
New York Steam Co., Cortlandt St. circa 1915. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Location of the New York Steam Company. Today this area is occupied by the World Trade Center site.

“Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan,” G. W. Bromley & Company (1921) via the New York Times
A steam pipe map from 1932
Installing district steam heat service in New York as depicted in Harper’s Weekly of September 9, 1882

News reports from the 1989 Gramercy Park steam explosion:

Steam vents in the street. New York City 2005/Jorge Royan, Wikimedia
These ‘Seussian’ vents serve a valuable purpose. Photo by MartinThoma/Wikimedia

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1 reply on “Steam Heat: The Gilded Age miracle that keeps New York warm”

GREAT Podcast .. having spent my entire life in buildings with Steam Heat!
The average NYer, I’m sure has no idea how this all works. I worked down the block from the big explosion at 41st and Lexington in 2007 .. wow, that was scary .. but a fascinating talk!

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