Anatomy of the Water Works


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

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 19th-century machinery, Thompson struggles to condense the enormous scope and significance of the project into just a few words.

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