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Fairmount Park

Philadelphia Zoo Entrance Pavilion, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA, Girard Avenue and 34th Street

Photo: Entrance Pavilion, Philadelphia Zoo, Fairmount Park, Girard Avenue and 34th Street, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS PA-1663], Jack Boucher, photograpger, 1972,, accessed June, 2012.

Fairmount Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]

Photo: Waterworks, Historic American Buildings Survey.[2]

See also: Schuylkill River Villas.

Beginning with the acquisition of the five acres at Fairmount for the Waterworks and reservoir, now site of Art Museum, the Park was gradually extended by the purchase, first of Lemon Hill and Sedgley in 1856, and then by the addition of about 220 acres at Lansdowne and George's Hill in the 1860's. Still later additions have brought the Park area up to some 4100 acres along both banks of the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon. (The Wissahickon Valley is a Registered National Natural Landmark.)

In 1876 the Lansdowne and George's Hill segments became the site of the Centennial Exhibition, Memorial Hall and the Ohio House remain to remind present-day visitors of this great fair. At about the same time the Zoological Gardens (in 1874) were opened to the public. Today, the Playhouse in the Park offers Philadelphians theater-in-the-round, and Robin Hood Dell, the chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra. Picnic areas, a golf course at Walnut Lane; swimming, both indoors at Memorial Hall and outdoors at the nearby Kelly Pool; fishing in the Wissahickon, and boating on the Schuylkill [see also Boathouse Row], a sport made famous by the paintings of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), add a variety to the rural walks, bicycle paths, and other more usual features of a large urban Park.

Despite a variety of such modern encroachments as the Schuylkill expressway, Philadelphia's Fairmount remains unequalled among American municipal parks for its combination of unusual size, natural beauty, historical importance, and the interest and merit of the buildings and sculpture it contains.

Although advice was sought from such nationally prominent landscape architects as Robert Morris Copeland of Boston and Olmsted & Vaux of New York, the park in its present form cannot be said to be the work of any one man. Nor is it easy to assign a single date to its establishment. Legislation formally setting aside a large area bordering the Schuylkill "forever, as an open public place" was not passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly until 1867, but the origins of the park are to be found at least half a century earlier in the five acres that first surrounded the Schuylkill waterworks, begun in 1812; in this sense, at least, Fairmount should probably be considered the earliest public park in America, apart from the city square and the colonial common. To protect the purity of the city's water supply and to provide for the "health and enjoyment" of its citizens, the area reserved for public use was gradually extended from this modest beginning until it became one of the largest — some would say the largest — municipal park in the world.

No longer the source of Philadelphia's water supply and now somewhat neglected, enough remains of the unusual group of late Federal and early Classical Revival buildings that comprised the Waterworks to make it clear why even Charles Dickens had kind words to say concerning its beauty and idly innumerable artists have found it and the little park surrounding it to be among the most "picturesque" of American subjects. With the acreage gradually added to this nucleus came numerous other buildings, at least a dozen of which are recognized as being of primary historical and stylistic importance: "Lemon Hill" (c. 1800), one of two outstanding Federal houses in Philadelphia and one equalled by few examples in the country; "Woodford" (1750's, enlarged 1772), Judge Coleman's mid-Georgian mansion, which now houses the superb Naomi Wood collection of 18th-century furnishings; Judge William Peters' Belmont (main portion built c. 1775), the woodwork and plaster ceilings of which are among the handsomest of the period and the area; "Strawberry Mansion" (built 1797, enlarged 1825), now restored to something of its former grandeur by the women of the Committee of 1926; John Penn's "Solitude" (c. 1785) with its superb plaster ceiling in the Adam manner; "Sweetbrier" (1797), Samuel Break's attractive country house, which, despite the loss of its gardens and dependencies, still remains an outstanding example of the sophisticated simplicity that characterizes the best late 18th-century architecture; and of course "Mount Pleasant" (begun 1761), which has been called the "finest Georgian mansion north of the Mason-Dixon Line."

Following the Civil War, the park was extended to the west bank of the Schuylkill in time to provide the location for the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. The demolition about 1955 of Horticultural Hall, one of the two "permanent" buildings of the Centennial, was a tragic and irreparable loss to the city and to the nation, but Memorial Hall (now repaired and used as a recreation center) still stands, as does the Ohio House, the only one of the structures erected for the Centennial by each of the states to remain in situ. Nearby are the gardens of the Zoological Society (chartered 1859 and therefore said to be the first such organization in North America), which were opened on their present site in 1874 and which still retain a number of important buildings, including the original entrance pavilions designed by the Philadelphia firm headed by Frank Furness, certainly one of the most talented of Victorian architects.

Not the least of the original attractions of the little park that surrounded the Philadelphia Waterworks was William Rush's Nymph and Bittern Fountain (now cast in bronze and removed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, nearby). Through the generosity of the Fairmount Park Association and other private groups and individuals, works of sculpture have continued to add appreciably to the interest and beauty of the expanded park. A number of these like Herman Kirn's Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain, erected for the Centennial, or the Civil War Memorial Gate (gift of Richard Smith, erected 1897-1912) are perhaps more to be wondered at than admired, but others like Randolph Rogers' Lincoln Monument (1871), Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Garfield Memorial (1896), Daniel Chester French's status of General Grant, Cyrus E. Dallin's Medicine Man, or Frederic Remington's Cowboy are major examples of the work of some of America's most talented sculptors.

If only because of its appeal to young and old alike, the scholar who would study its sculpture and buildings, no less than the city dweller who would escape the heat and squalor of his surroundings, Fairmount Park probably offers more toward the enrichment of contemporary life than does any other of Philadelphia's many contributions to the arts of America.

  1. Tatum, George B., Fairmount Park, 1972, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington D. C.
  2. Historic American Buildings Survery [HABS PA-1654], The Waterworks, 1973, Jack E. Boucher, photographer.

Fairmount Park Map

Street Names
34th Street • Girard Avenue

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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