The Fairmount Water Works was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original National Register of Historic Places nomination document.
The water works at Fairmount is an engineering triumph as well as an architectural treasure. Needed to supplement the first city water works in Centre Square, designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1799, Fairmount was opened as a steam pumping station in 1815, and became the first municipal water works in the country to use paddle wheels to pump water, and later it became the first to abandon the paddle wheels for more efficient water turbine engines. The four Greek-Revival buildings on the site were enhanced by sculpture designed by the first native American sculptor, William Rush.
Frances Trollope writing in her Domestic Manners of the Americans describes the vast yet simple machinery, the chaste classical building enclosing it, and the many examples of nature improved, appreciating at once its synthesis of technology, architecture, landscape and sculpture. She called it "one of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon." It still is.
In 1911 the water works was obsolete and most of the pumps removed although some remain and the interior of the mill houses were converted to an aquarium.
The grounds around the water works were landscaped and formed the nucleus of one of the first parks in America compared to town commons and squares. There were garden walks and summer houses where Philadelphians flocked in good weather. There were river boats on the Schuylkill running excursions up-river that were very fashionable. Charles Dickens, critical of everything American, found the Water Works at Fairmount beautiful.
Stuccoed pavilions with Doric tetrastyle porticos terminate each end of the building and a brick-paved terrace extended the length of the eastern front, facing the forebay. In the absence of an accepted industrial style the Roman Revival of the end pavilions, perhaps inspired by LeNotre's Temple dlAmour at Chantilly, was the most appropriate available. It conjured up images of Roman civilization and its famed engineering feats, including the great aqueducts that had fed its ancient water systems.
From the beginning the Watering Committee appreciated the scenic virtues of the site, and the landscaped area was expanded to more than twenty acres as the operation grew in the 1820's, and it eventually became the nucleus of the extensive Fairmount Park system. Sculpture by the great William Rush, a member of the Committee, was introduced to further enhance the setting. His allegorical Schuylkill Chained and Schuylkill Freed were finished in 1825 and placed above the two entrances to the mill-house. A couple of years later Rush's Nymph and Rittern was moved from the abandoned Centre Square Works to a niche above the forebay, and in 1829 his statue of Mercury was perched atop a gazebo which served as a rest spot halfway up the rocky mount. The Water Works became one of Philadelphia's best known sites and its citizens' favorite promenade. This blending of new technology with old landscape and the cultivation of that natural scenery was a self-confident expression of man's peaceful, beneficial mastery of nature. Views of it were recorded in virtually every medium, including transfer prints on earthenware and porcelain.
There were a number of later alterations to the Water Works. Some of these changes, such as the erection of iron railings in the late 1840's, were minor, while others were more extensive. The Water Works' present appearance is largely the result of work done in the 1860's when the terrace was raised and above the mill-building were built the central temple structure and the flanking wooden huts. The tower seen projecting above the Works in late-nineteenth-century illustrations was the standpipe designed and erected by Frederic Graff in 1852 to supply a new reservoir near Twenty-second and Poplar Streets. The brick Italianate facade projected the pipe from frost and added a picturesque element to the scene until it was demolished about 1920 during the construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Attempts were made to keep the Water Works abreast of changing technology and a beginning in 1867 the water wheels were replaced by turbines. By 1911, however, the facility was no longer practical and was closed; the forebay was filled in and the buildings were converted to an aquarium. Although vacant since 1962, the classical ensemble still serves as a splendid foil for the majestic Museum of Art looming above it.