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When the Fairmount Water Works was born in the 19th century, its cutting-edge technology and pleasing gardens drew hordes of tourists. Penn alumni working on a $26 million restoration and environmental-education project at the site hope to create a new life for this half-forgotten landmark that helped a city grow.

By Susan Lonkevich

Sidebar | Anatomy of the Water Works


It is to the Schuylkill that Philadelphia is indebted for the super-abundant supply of fresh water which ministers so much to the comfort of its inhabitants … The supply of water, distributed from this reservoir, is inexhaustible; at least, the Philadelphian use of it as if it were so. You meet it everywhere, lavished on every purpose, municipal, domestic, and personal. Philadelphia seems to begin each day with a general ablution.
— Alexander Mackay, Travels in the United States in 1846-47


A mere quarter of a century ago, one couldn’t venture onto the banks of the Schuylkill River without an assault to the nostrils. One acrid whiff told the story of what decades of industrial dumping had done to a natural resource which had been the pride of the city throughout most of the 1800s.
    Today, the river has been reclaimed, and with it, hopes for reviving an ensemble of semi-vacant buildings which played a crucial role in Philadelphia history, the Fairmount Water Works.
    Ed Grusheski G’74, a museum educator with an interest in historic preservation and the environment, has been working at the Philadelphia Water Department for 11 years to create an environmental-education center at the site. With a fundraising goal of $4.2 million and a targeted opening date of Spring 2001, the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center would tell the history of the structure—in its day the prototype for the world’s water-supply systems—and teach the importance of protecting the watershed. This effort is but one component of a $26 million restoration and development project that has evolved over more than two decades. Fundraisers are $6 million shy of their total goal.
    As with most any major Philly initiative, this one has involved numerous Penn-connected people along the way. One alumnus, architect Mark Thompson Ar’65 GAr’69, first became mesmerized by the Water Works while sculling past it as a member of the varsity rowing team. Several years later, as a faculty member at the University, he would have his architecture students build models of the structure, contrasting it to other sites around the city. Today, Mark B. Thompson Associates is the lead architectural firm for the restoration and interpretive center projects, and Thompson’s enchantment with the Water Works has only deepened.
    “It was one of the essential and major additions to the city’s capability and allowed it to become the second largest English-speaking city in its time,” he explains. “It allowed Philadelphia to go beyond the limits of the well-and-privy configuration in each yard, just as Rome, with its aqueducts, was able to go beyond its natural limits.”
    During a brief conversation at his Center City office, surrounded by poster-size renderings of a water lab and restored 19thcentury machinery, Thompson struggles to condense the enormous scope and significance of the project into just a few words.


Visitors to the Water Works were suprised they didn’t hear the machines, just the sound of water moving.

 “What you find is there are layers and layers of our experience integrated into the Water Works. It’s so multidimensional. It’s like having a relationship with a wonderful older woman and finding that she has stories that she’s forgotten and tales that are not inconsequential in the history of the city—the city that she produced in many respects.”
    In the 1790s, a mysterious fever descended on Philadelphia, killing nearly 10 percent of the city’s population in a single year. To escape the black vomit, carbuncles and yellow-tinged eyeballs that inevitably accompanied death, thousands fled the city; those who could not get out of town did their best to survive by avoiding neighbors-in-mourning and traversing the streets with their noses cloaked in vinegar-laced handkerchiefs. Believing that the virus, called yellow fever, was somehow related to the general filth of the streets (it was actually spread by mosquitoes), city leaders decided they needed to invest in a source of clean water to wash things down periodically, and, while they were at it, provide a wholesome supply for drinking and firefighting. Once the plague had abated, they appointed a Watering Committee (forerunner of the Philadelphia Water Department) to carry out this uncommon task.
    Benjamin Latrobe, the English-born engineer and architect who had come to Philadelphia from Richmond, Va., to build the Bank of Pennsylvania, was invited to give his advice on a water-distribution system. In 1799 he submitted a proposal to pump water of “uncommon purity” from the Schuylkill River using steam engines; impressed by his plan, the Watering Committee awarded him a contract to complete the job by the following year.
    But the task wasn’t that simple. Even citizens who demanded quick action for the sake of the population’s health didn’t necessarily want to pay for it (the city ultimately resorted to a subscription service), and others questioned the wisdom of contracting with “a foreigner” like Latrobe. With no model of its kind and scale to follow, the project dragged on for an extra year.
    Thomas Cope, a local merchant who served on the Watering Committee, recalled in his diary the tense months leading up to the tardy completion, in January 1801, of the city’s first water works. So many friends had “shunned me in the streets,” Cope wrote, that he believed if the plan were to fail, “I should be compelled to leave the City, greatly as I was attached to it by interest & affection[,] & settled elsewhere.”
    As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Cope described his reaction when the facility went into operation at daybreak in Centre Square, where City Hall now stands:

It was an anxious moment & when the signal was given to put the engine in motion, my heart beat so furiously against my side I could scarce keep my feet. When I beheld the elevated fountain gush forth, tears of joy came to my relief.

    “From that day,” Cope continued, “I met smiling faces where I had long been accustomed to contumely & scorn.” (Never mind that he had dished out a substantial amount of both himself, referring to Latrobe in an earlier diary entry as a “cunning, witful, dissimulating fellow, possessing more ingenuity than honesty” and expressing horror over the mounting costs of the project under his direction.)
    “Centre Square was certainly an engineering marvel,” notes Grusheski—and an architectural one as well, with its dome-topped neoclassical shape—”but it wasn’t very efficient and effective.” The boilers, made partly of wood, kept exploding, requiring that the whole system be shut down for repairs.
    Eventually, the operations were moved to Faire Mount, the highest point close to the city, from which the water could be distributed by gravity. Frederick Graff, who had apprenticed with Latrobe and served as superintendent of the Centre Square facility, designed and became chief engineer of its successor, the Fairmount Water Works.

Industrial Function, Classical Style
    
In 1815 he opened the engine house on the east bank of the Schuylkill, at the base of the hill where the Philadelphia Art Museum now stands. Borrowing a point from Latrobe’s protractor, Graff cleverly disguised its rugged industrial function with touches of Federal architecture. From the outside, it looked like another genteel country manor set on the river. But behind the stucco exterior and three-storied windows, the building was wide open from the water level up to the rafters except for two enormous steam engines. Graff figured that one machine could serve as a backup in case the other broke down. But high operating costs and the deaths of three men in boiler explosions at the site eventually caused him to abandon steam altogether in favor of safer, cheaper water power. It was a brilliant move.
    The year 1821 saw the completion of the Fairmount Dam, which at 1,204 feet was, at the time, the longest dam in the world, according to Grusheski. The following year, the water wheels were put into operation. The dam channeled the Schuylkill into an artificial bay (blasted out of bedrock) behind a Greek-Revival mill house. The water then filled buckets attached to eight enormous water wheels lined up inside the building’s rectangular space; as they turned, the wheels operated pumps that sent water through a series of mains up hill and to the city’s reservoir.
    “They went from paying four hundred dollars to pump a million gallons of water up to the reservoir to paying less than four dollars,” Grusheski says. “It was such an efficient system that all of the communities around here wanted to get Fairmount water. So the water department became the cash cow of the city of Philadelphia.” And industries flocked to the area to take advantage of this technological marvel.
    Grusheski walks past a paint-flaked gazebo onto a pier at the Water Works on a winter afternoon made more blustery by the proximity of the river. He has driven over here from the water department’s downtown office to give a tour of the site. Behind the protection of his gold windbreaker peeks a red bow tie—an accessory that would have blended in here a century and a half ago, amid families strolling the premises with parasols and top hats.
    During the golden age of the Water Works, it became the second-most popular tourist site in the United States, after Niagara Falls. “If you visited relatives or friends in Philadelphia,” Grusheski says, “there was such pride in it that they would drag you up there.” So many visitors came to the site that in 1835 a family-style “saloon” was opened in the former engine house to provide refreshments. Resort hotels with postcard-perfect views sprang up on the opposite bank. Newspapers advertised scenic steamboat rides between the Water Works and local points of interest.
    These were heady times for Philadelphia leaders. With obvious civic pride, the city’s Joint Council would hold its annual spring dinners “al fresco” at the Water Works throughout the 1830s and ’40s. Catering orders from the era are replete with vest-popping Victorian fare: One calls for copious quantities of Madeira, sherry and cigars as well as a “rump beef a la mode,” 3 tongues, 4 pairs of chickens, 12 squabs, 700 “best spiced oysters,” 12 lobsters and, naturally, “4 shad to be provided at the Works.”
    Grusheski points out the old millhouse entrance, where spectators would have walked down a marble staircase to a public balcony stretching the length of the building in order to marvel at the turning of the water wheels (“big-time machinery,” at 16 feet in diameter and 15 feet wide). “This had to have been just breathtaking,” he says, with a strong Boston accent that in no way detracts from his obvious enthusiasm for a Philly landmark. “We have people’s reports of the sound of water surging through the building. They were surprised that they didn’t hear the machines, just the sound of the water moving.”
    Daguerreotypes, paintings and travel journals provide a rich picture of the site during its heyday. One of Grusheski’s favorite scenes, depicted by Scottish-born artist David Johnston Kennedy in his painting “Waterwheel at Fairmount,” shows a woman in a floor-sweeping dress and her small son standing within arm’s length of the enormous moving machinery—a precarious pose that obviously predated liability insurance.


The Fairmount Water Works allowed Philadelphia to become the second-largest English speaking city in its time.

Taming the Schuylkill
    
The visitor-friendly Water Works provided a powerful tool of propaganda for those who truly believed that each revolution of the water wheels represented a turn in the direction of social progress. “What we were saying,” Grusheski explains, “was that we [in the United States] were going to be able to industrialize without having the problems that Europeans were experiencing at that time, that we could use nature without harming it.”
    Who wouldn’t have believed that while strolling the well-manicured grounds, between gravity-defying fountains, white marble statuary and gazebos overlooking tranquil vistas? The young Mark Twain, while working as a substitute typesetter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was clearly beguiled by this intersection of technology and nature when he wrote in an 1853 letter to his brother of his visit to the Water Works and its surrounding gardens: 

At the foot of this hill a pretty white marble Naiad stands on a projecting rock, and this, I must say, is the prettiest fountain I have seen lately. A nice half-inch jet of water is thrown straight up ten or twelve feet, and descends in a shower all over the fair water spirit. Fountains also gush out of the rock at her feet in every direction.

    Even Charles Dickens—who, in his American Notes, devotes most of his chapter on Philadelphia to a diatribe against local prison conditions—was impressed by the site:

Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water-Works, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point, and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense.

    With an impressive degree of environmental foresight for its time, the city began buying up land along the riverbanks north of the city in order to protect the watershed from industrial development. Boathouse Row and the rest of Fairmount Park were ultimately born out of this investment.
    The environmental activism of city leaders didn’t stop there, according to Grusheski. “We were in Harrisburg fighting against industries we knew polluted the water.”
    As the city grew and its demand for water increased, new technology was needed to keep it gushing from the taps 24 hours a day. In came the water-powered Jonval turbine, named after its French inventor Feu Jonval—an instant success when it was installed in 1851 under the leadership of Graff’s son, Frederick Graff Jr. A new mill house was built, and six more turbines were added eventually, replacing all of the waterwheels. By 1872, the Water Works was operating at its peak of efficiency. Unfortunately, the water it was taking from the Schuylkill was becoming contaminated as an increasing number of individuals and industries throughout the region used the river for dumping waste.
    In the 1890s, a century after it was scourged with yellow fever, Philadelphia endured the worst typhoid epidemic in the country with the exception of Chicago. City leaders knew they had to do something to purify the water, so they took the Water Works out of service in 1909 and built five new water pumping stations with sand filtration beds throughout the city. For the next half a century, the condition of both the Schuylkill and the Delaware rivers would only worsen as the city channeled its resources into purifying the drinking water rather than fighting against the industries that had polluted it in the first place.
    Addressing the City Parks Association at a reception in 1924, civic activist John Frederick Lewis invoked biblical fury as he spoke of how a river once so pristine that baptismal candidates processed down its sylvan banks for immersion had become so filthy:

With the river banks and bottom foul with deposited sewage; with sewage in suspension and visibly floating upon the surface of the stream, and with the blood and offal of slaughter houses and the waste of oil refineries, chemical factories and paint works, the conditions are impossible to overstate. The waters of Nimrim have become desolate … and the waters of Dimon are full of blood. Much of our City’s available territory has been cursed by our own wickedness, as the land of Egypt was cursed by God at the mouth of Aaron.

    Meanwhile, the Water Works had undergone another transformation, into a public aquarium illuminated by skylights cut into the decks of the old and new mill houses. Seals and sea lions frolicked for a time in the forebay (until they got sick), while saltwater and freshwater fish took up quarters in giant indoor tanks. Aside from the light-induced algae growth that inevitably obscured the fish with a green haze, Grusheski notes, there was the irony of having visitors descend the grand stairway into the aquarium as if they were going under the river—a river no longer fit for man or fish. (Badly deteriorated, the aquarium closed in 1962. Part of the space was used for a public swimming pool until 1973.)
    Due to the sullied reputation of its water supply—”It wouldn’t kill you,” says Grusheski. “But the taste and odor were horrendous.”—Philadelphia became one of the first cities in the United States to receive federal money for wastewater treatment. By 1957, the Philadelphia Water Department had all of its plants using primary treatment; in 1984, they went on line with secondary, or biological, treatment. Since towns above Philadelphia did the same in the early 1990s, both the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers have rebounded. Forty varieties of fish and other indigenous wildlife reappeared in the Schuylkill between 1986 and 1996.


Reclaiming the River
    
“The next step to cleaning the rivers out there,” Grusheski notes, “is an educational step. People have to understand the water resources and their effect on them if we are going to move to the next level.” The Interpretive Center will, he hopes, help carry forward that mission.
    The water department has been running public education programs in renovated parts of the Water Works since 1992, but it needs more space. Plans for the expanded interpretive center, to be located at river level, include a lab where visitors can test water quality and examine microorganisms in water from various sources; interpretive displays on the environment; a working replica of a water wheel and a classroom and theater. Using a computer mapping system, visitors will be able to locate their home addresses, tracking the source of their drinking water and destination of their wastewater. So far, just $200,000 has been raised toward this goal. With some $20 million collected for the restoration project, the organization in charge of all fundraising for the Water Works recently gave permission to start raising money for the interpretive center.
    The main reason the project has taken so long, believes Grusheski, is that the environment along the river had to catch up to preservationists’ good intentions. In 1974, the year the city’s Junior League launched its campaign to fix up the Water Works, “this river was not a pleasant place to be next to, to do anything. We had been using the river for much of the 20th century as an open sewer.”
    Thanks to the Clean Water Act of the 1970s, there has been “an amazing turnaround in the quality of the water,” Grusheski says. “By the 1990s everything seemed to come together in terms of fundraising. The economy is good, and the river is better than it has been in 100 years.”
    Mark Thompson’s architectural firm was busy last fall wrapping up its restoration of the engine house, which is expected to open next spring as a restaurant, reverting to one of its original uses.
    The next phase of restoration will include stabilizing the deck of the new millhouse, replacing balustrades, adding subtle outdoor lighting to the buildings and lowering the grade around the structures to show the outline of the original forebay as well as the bridge that connected the Water Works to the mainland. In addition, the original walkways, plantings and statuary of the South Garden will be recreated or restored.
    Thompson is not the first Penn-graduate architect to work on the site. When the structure was in danger of deteriorating in the early 1980s (it was placed on a list of threatened national landmarks by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior), Philadelphia architect John Milner Ar’64, an adjunct associate professor at the University, completed as much work as funds permitted, accomplishing, among other things, the renovation of the Watering Committee building and caretaker’s house, as well as the stabilization and re-decking of the old millhouse.
    Because the Water Works remained under-occupied after the earlier renovation, however, things soon began to fall apart, Thompson says. He doesn’t want to let that happen again. “The day the last brush was cleaned and the workers were off site was the beginning of the decline,” he says. “When somebody is there, they can see there’s some graffiti or see a rain pipe that’s out, or they want to have a party, so they spruce things up. We do this to our buildings. We don’t let them go.”
    Once the construction fences come down, Thompson would like to see the interpretive center and restaurant in operation—and much more. In his vision, the unused space in the mill houses would be turned into an athletic training center and place for athletes to mentor underprivileged children who live near the park. Catered parties and concerts would flourish on the decks. Skating and paddle-boating would resume. (There’s even been talk of bringing people to the site by boat from the Delaware River waterfront, Grusheski says.) And one day, Thompson hopes to see the dramatic depth of the original forebay restored. Whether the money and the will exists to accomplish all of these goals remains to be seen. But he says, “I think we will eventually rebuild the social fabric of caring that people have had for this place.”
    “This is really the crown jewel of 19th-century Philadelphia,” Grusheski says. As such, it should become a major asset to the city, which has been focused on using its history to attract tourism. “People will go to see the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center, and they will definitely go to the Fairmount Water Works and love it,” he predicts. “Throughout its history this really was a destination point—an international destination point. And there’s no reason it couldn’t be that again.”


SIDEBAR

One set of buildings. Six different uses. 185 years of history.
    You don’t just renovate a place like the Fairmount Water Works, which has alternately housed steam engines, water wheels, a saloon, turbines, an aquarium and a swimming pool. You excavate it, searching for pieces of its multilayered past.
    “We’re treating it as an archaeological site,” says Mark Thompson Ar’65 GAr’69, the architect whose firm has been involved since the early 1990s in restoring the landmark. In order to accomplish this, “We enlarged our definition of what architecture was and is.”
    Claire Donato C’86 GAr’89, an associate in Thompson’s firm who’s been working on the project, explains that when they teamed up with Ed Grusheski G’74 at the Philadelphia Water Department to develop plans for the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, they began tying the goals of that endeavor to some of their restoration work. “We really started to look below or behind the surfaces that were there to see what was still intact and how that could be used to support the exhibit’s educational goals.” That strategy paid off.
    In their “top to bottom restoration” of the old engine house, for instance, they ripped up the floor that was built in 1835 when the original steam engines were retired and the upper-level of the building was converted to a saloon.
    Crammed in the space below were giant holding tanks for sea water that were used for the public aquarium that opened in 1911. By removing those tanks, they revealed the massive engine block that had supported the original machinery. “We have great images of that when the floor was dug up,” she adds. “Standing in the original floor level looking up to the roof trusses, you really got a sense of the original scale; it was very powerful to have that view again.”
    The renovation process has yielded other treasures, as well. “What we were finding,” Donato says, “was that the previous users had no reason to take stuff out. The most expedient thing to do was to cover over it. So we started punching holes through these walls and finding out that, ‘Look, the flume is still there. It’s beautifully intact,’ and, making that connection, ‘Well, maybe the [cradle] is still there for the water wheels.’ So we chopped through the floor and started taking dirt and fill out, and sure enough, it was still there in beautiful condition.
    “It sort of shook the programming up a little bit, but in an exciting way. Now we had real pieces of machines to include in the interpretive center.”
    Going back to “the anatomy” of the Water Works, in Thompson’s words, rather than relying solely on written records, is yielding a more complete historical picture of the site. “I’m convinced,” he says, “that while everyone is looking at this phase as the restoration phase, it’s just one more part of what will be an ongoing learning and investigative and interpretive activity that has really got another several generations to go.”

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