If you haven’t yet been to the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, it’s worth a trip. You’ll get a fascinating look at a Water Works that:
- Set the pace for over 30 other U.S. cities.
- Got rave reviews from writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.
- Was the second most-popular tourist destination in the country in the mid-19th century.
Philadelphia’s search for clean water was spurred by a deadly yellow fever epidemic in 1793 that killed over 4,000 residents.
The city responded with a bold, state-of-the-art solution – though one somewhat off the mark. (Not until about 1900, did scientists learn that mosquitoes spread the disease, not dirty water.)
Today, almost 200 years later, the Fairmount Water Works offers visitors breathtaking views, innovative architecture and a unique look at municipal problem-solving.
Before Fairmount, Philadelphia’s Watering Committee opened the city’s first Water Works in 1801 at Centre Square, where City Hall is now located. Because of maintenance problems, unresolved technical problems and the need for a more reliable water supply, that site was abandoned in 1815.
But, Centre Square was important for two reasons: its distribution system through pipes laid out in alignment with the street grid; and Benjamin Latrobe’s beautiful neoclassical building.
At Fairmount, Frederick Graff, a Latrobe disciple and newly named superintendent, continued the tradition of designing elegant classical revival buildings that disguised industrial machinery inside.
The result: Fairmount was renowned for its marvelous architecture, stunning gardens and promenades and wonderful water wheels.
Like fictional fighter Rocky Balboa in the “Rocky” movies, the Fairmount Water Works had its ups and downs. At first, it was a national pace-setter and technological marvel.
In 1822, after Superintendent Frederick Graff replaced two steam engines with large water wheels, people flocked to Fairmount to see them in action. Later, even-more-efficient turbines replaced the water wheels.
Unfortunately during the industrial revolution, companies north of Philadelphia relentlessly dumped pollution and waste into the Schuylkill River. By 1883, the water was so bad that a physician offered $50 to anyone who could drink a quart of it ten nights in a row without vomiting or dying.
To combat the pollution, the city added new pumping and filtration stations near the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Then in 1909, after 94 years of operation, the Water Works was closed.
Today the Philadelphia Art Museum – Rocky statue and all – sits atop what was once the 3,264,126-gallon Water Works’ reservoir.
Inside the old facilities is the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center. Opened in 2003, it now educates residents about water in our world.
The staff is warm, welcoming and helpful. Admission is free. And a 20-minute movie, interesting exhibits and interactive displays make it a fun learning experience for young and old alike.
Best Explanation of the Inner Workings of the Water Works: a 16-minute Philadelphia Water Works film titled “Our Story.” Artfully done, with some great animation. It’s available online. Go to: fairmountworks.com/our-story/
- While the Fairmount Water Works became the nation’s “most depicted piece of architecture” in the 19th century, says Arthur S. Marks, professor emeritus, department of art, University of North Carolina, Frederick Graff, the superintendent and chief engineer at Fairmount, was unappreciated for his architectural skills. He was not even listed in a biographical dictionary of Philadelphia architects of the period. Yet, Marks says, the Water Works says “was wholly the product of Frederick Graff.” Graff designed the buildings, most of the machinery, the distribution system and the gardens.
- To prevent nearby industries from locating too close to the water supply, Philadelphia purchased the Lemon Hill property of Robert Morris in 1844. That strategy – “to protect and improve the purity of the Schuylkill water supply” –eventually resulted in the creation of Fairmount Park.
- The Water Works is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a National Historic Landmark, and National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Place: Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center
Address: 640 Waterworks Drive, Phila., PA 19130
Admission: Free Hours: Tues. – Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., 1 to 5 p.m.; Mon. and city holidays – closed
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.