entrance into the niagara falls power plant education center
The curving walkway from the parking area to the Niagara Parks Power Station entry plaza. Photo credit: David Lasker Photography.

Niagara Falls Power Station is Now an Education and Entertainment Destination

After over a century of use, the former Rankine Generating Station has been thoughtfully transformed by Ontario-based +VG Architects.

Niagara Falls requires little introduction­­—those three cascading waterfalls where Lake Erie joins Lake Ontario are some of the most recognizable natural landmarks in North America. It is that torrential force of the falls that has provided abundant hydropower to the region and afar for over a century. The Niagara Parks Power Station is one such facility, and, at the ripe old age of 115 years old, has just wrapped up a well-executed conversion led by Ontario-based firm +VG Architects into an immersive museum.

Formerly known as the Rankine Generating Station, the hydroelectric plant was constructed between 1901 and 1905 by the Canadian Niagara Power Company. And, as a collaboration between engineers George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla, served as the global standard for the hydroelectric power industry. The powerhouse measures nearly 600-feet-long and approximately 100-feet-wide and housed 11 generators that produced a contemporaneously whopping 100 million volt-amps. The Beaux-Arts structure remained operational until 2005 and passed hands to the Niagara Parks Commission in 2019.

aerial view of the niagara falls power plant
Aerial view of the gathering weir, ice rack suspended from the pedestrian bridge, outer forebay, Niagara Parkway bridge and powerhouse. Photo credit: Mario Madau.
interior renovation of niagara falls power plant
View of the generator hall from the entrance balcony with the entry to the new washrooms, left, and construction hoarding, right, covering the conversion of the shaft to a glass-elevator ride to the tailrace tunnel. Photo credit: David Lasker Photography.

Fortuitously, the plant’s recent decommissioning translated to a remarkably sound structural condition that allowed +VG Architects to approach the project with a relatively light touch. “Rather than going back to a specific era, and restoring the building to say, the day it was opened, it was important for us to preserve and maintain the many layers of changes that had occurred in the building over the years,” notes +VG Architects president and managing principal Paul Sapounzi. “It was crucial to stabilize the structure from the perspective of ensuring it was watertight and that the original layout and relation to the surrounding landscape remained intact.”

To that effect, much of the intervention focused on the thoughtful installation of an all-new HVAC, and other contemporary building infrastructure, within a newly constructed basement. The generator hall was left largely intact, and now showcases the station’s turbines and equipment—thoroughly shined and restored—through a series of interpretive installations and interactive exhibitions. Building codes have also changed dramatically since the station was constructed, and the design team carefully inserted one-hour fire separations between the existing floors and the museum’s new entrances and exits, along with new exit stairs and sprinklers.

interior renovation of niagara falls power plant
The Power Station Shop’s cash wrap restates the wave motif enunciated by the ticket desk in the adjoining generator hall. Photo credit: David Lasker Photography.

Another challenge for the project was adapting the station’s inner forebay, where water formerly poured into the spillways to power the turbines. “We had to manage an entire forebay of water that ran the entire length of the building; this required the construction of a cofferdam between the power station and the Niagara River, and the blocking of all the forebay’s penstocks with a brand-new concrete wall. The remaining outer forebay is intact and is open to the entire retail and eating area we have created within the station.” A 100-foot-long section of the forebay was maintained as a visitor feature demonstrating how water flowed into the plant.

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This summer, the project will also wrap up construction of a new glass-walled elevator that will plunge nearly 200 feet into the station’s tailrace tunnel, which will be embedded with interpretative media installations as well as a viewing platform overlooking Horseshoe Falls.

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