Anatomy of the Water Works
When the Fairmount Water Works
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
for this half-forgotten landmark that helped
a city grow.
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
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.
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.
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 G74, 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 structurein its day the prototype for the
worlds water-supply systemsand 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
Ar65 GAr69, 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 Thompsons
enchantment with the Water Works has only deepened.
"It was one of the essential and major additions to the citys 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 19th-century machinery,
Thompson struggles to condense the enormous scope and significance of
the project into just a few words.
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