Water Works

As with many cities, Philadelphia is a study in contrasts. Alongside the historic architecture are post-modern skyscrapers and skeletons of new buildings going up. Even the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art was recently covered with scaffolding as its “envelope” of Minnesota dolomitic limestone and glazed terra cotta underwent a complete restoration. The Perelman Center, housing modern art and sculpture and costumes in its Art Deco halls, has recently opened across the street, and soon, a Frank Gehry-designed wing will be added.

This magnificent painting of the Philadelphia Water Works by Behrooz Salimnejad, with a glimpse of the art museum is the background, is part of the Artists of Yardley Second Annual Art Show opening May 2, hosted by Riverrun Gallery, 287 South Main Street (Route 29) in the Laceworks Building,  Lambertville.  Wine and light refreshments will be served at the opening from 6-9 p.m. The show runs through May 26.

More than 80 members works will be on display, including watercolors, oils, pottery, photography, pastels, glass, sculpture, and textiles. TY Hodanish, owner of Riverrun Gallery and written about in an Aug. 24 post on The Artful Blogger, will serve as the juror.

Several summers ago, Fairmount Park House guide Mary Blair led a tour of the Philadelphia Water Works. Recently restored, this important component of Philadelphia’s history has become a tourist mecca.

The walk begins on the steps of the museum, overlooking the Schuylkill River. Pointing up to the top of the Horace Trumbauer quasi Greek Revival architecture, Ms. Blair informs us that 100 years ago, a reservoir was at the level of the pediments and we’d have been under water. The 130-mile river was “discovered” (the Leni Lenape were the original settlers and had an entirely different name for the river) by the Dutch West India Company in the 1600s. Schuylkill is the Dutch word for “hidden creek,” and it was thus named because it was so overgrown, the settlers overlooked it at first.

William Penn arrived in 1682. “Penn’s Land,” which at the time included what is now Princeton, was given by King Charles II to repay a debt to Penn’s father. “Fast forward, and 50 years later the Schuylkill was a fast-flowing, tidal river from where the Leni Lenape fished for shad,” said Ms. Blair. “It was clean and wonderful for hunting.” By the 1750s, the merchant class sought an escape from the city and built summer houses up the river in what is today Fairmount Park, where it was cool and clean.

As we look out over the river, we see a neoclassical building protruding through the greenery. Lemon Hill was built by Philadelphia merchant Henry Pratt in 1800 on property formerly owned by Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. “It was built as a summer entertaining site with greenhouses that grew lemon and orange trees,” said Ms. Blair. “People would come for the day to see it.” But when Pratt got overextended in the real estate market, the once wealthiest man in Philadelphia was sent to debtor’s prison.

By the 1790s, there was an outbreak of yellow fever. It was at the time believed to be caused by dirty water, although today it is known to have been an epidemic from the Caribbean. In 1793, 20 percent of the population of Philadelphia died in a four-month period. “The wealthy went to their summer villas,” said Ms. Blair.

A system of distributing clean water throughout the city to wash streets and extinguish fires was needed. “It was the first time a municipality offered a public service on this scale,” said Ms. Blair. “I personally think it was because Philadelphia was a Quaker city, where people worked together to get things done. William Penn survived the fire that burned London, so he mandated that everything be built in brick.”

The city formed a watering committee, and Benjamin Latrobe, designer of the U.S. Capitol, developed a steam-engine system to pump the water into the city from the Schuylkill. The system was plagued with problems, and so Frederick Graff planned the first Water Works, designing an engine house that was both innovative and had architectural elegance. It pumped the water 90 feet up into a reservoir that connected to the area where City Hall is today. It was delivered via hollowed-out logs to hydrants placed throughout the city.

But in 1818 and again in 1821, the boilers exploded and the city re-employed Graff, who created the Fairmount dam to redirect the water.

The second Water Works were constructed between 1819 and 1822 on the banks of the Schuylkill River. With its Greek Revival façade, it became a major tourist attraction, with sculpture by William Rush adorning the buildings. (The original sculpture, created in wood and painted to look like white marble, can be seen in the museum; those we see today are reproductions, according to Ms. Blair.)

The Water Works became the most profitable business in the city and the most-visited attraction with promenades, gardens and fountains that shot water 40 feet into the air. “It was even pictured on Staffordshire china,” said Ms. Blair.

As the population grew, the water system was improved with turbine wheels. But the Industrial Revolutions brought environmental pollution: the river turned black and fish were killed. Diseases spread, and a public health crisis loomed, so the city decommissioned the Water Works in 1909.

Over the next 50 years, it was used as an aquarium (closed in 1962) and a swimming pool (closed in 1973). In 1976, the Water Works was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and a campaign was launched to raise money for its restoration. The project was completed in the last few years, despite setbacks due to fire and lack of funding. A new restaurant, Water Works Restaurant and Lounge, describes its cuisine as “inspired neoclassical,” reflecting the ethnic makeup of the city.

As bicyclists whizzed past us on the river walk that leads to Bartram Gardens, among other sites, we saw the restored Water Works gardens. Our tour continued through the interpretive center, where we watched a video on the history of the Water Works. Exhibits in the interpretive center help to explain the history, engineering, pollution problems, and how the shad have come back since the Clean Water Act.

“The U.S. became the first nation where people went outside to recreate,” said Ms. Blair. “The biggest spectator sport was rowing. Thomas Eakins grew up here and was friends with rowers. After the Civil War, the boat houses were rebuilt, and ice skating was a popular sport as well.”

Leaving the interpretive center, we take the “walk of history,” where the Leni Lenape marked their favorite fishing sites with piles of stones. In fact, the day of the tour, city residents were actively fishing. Along the walk are benches into which the words of well-known visitors, from Mark Twain (1853) and Frances Trollope (1830) to Charles Dickens (1840), are inscribed. There is a bronze fisherman with a graffiti-covered tackle box, although he’s missing his pole. “He fell into the river after Hurricane Floyd,” explained Ms. Blair. “They rescued him but never did find his rod.”

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