of the Water Works
One set of buildings.
Six different uses. 185 years of history.
You dont 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
"Were treating it as an archaeological
site," says Mark Thompson Ar65 GAr69, 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 C86 GAr89,
an associate in Thompsons firm whos been working on the project,
explains that when they teamed up with Ed Grusheski G74 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 exhibits 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.
Its 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 Thompsons words, rather than relying solely on written
records, is yielding a more complete historical picture of the site. "Im
convinced," he says, "that while everyone is looking at this phase as
the restoration phase, its 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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