Rebirth on the River , continued

Photo by Greg Benson

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.
Photo by Greg Benson    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."

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


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