Rebirth on the
River , continued
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 wouldnt 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
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.
Charles Dickenswho, in his American Notes, devotes most of
his chapter on Philadelphia to a diatribe against local prison conditionswas
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
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 didnt 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 Jonvalan instant
success when it was installed in 1851 under the leadership of Graffs
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
waters of Dimon are full of blood. Much of our Citys available
territory has been cursed by our own wickedness, as the land of Egypt
was cursed by God at the mouth of Aaron.
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 rivera 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 wouldnt
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.
"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.
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 citys 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 Thompsons 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 Ar64, 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 caretakers 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 doesnt
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 theres some graffiti or see
a rain pipe thats out, or they want to have a party, so they spruce
things up. We do this to our buildings. We dont let them go."
Once the construction fences come down, Thompson would like to see the
interpretive center and restaurant in operationand 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. (Theres 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 pointan international
destination point. And theres no reason it couldnt be that
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Water Works allowed Philadelphia to become the second-largest English
speaking city in its time.