Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Elizabeth Milroy

Fairmount Park

Fairmount Park was developed in the nineteenth century in an effort to protect Philadelphia’s public water supply and to preserve extensive green spaces within a rapidly industrializing cityscape. It became one of the largest urban riparian parks in the United States and comprises the largest contiguous components of Philadelphia's public park system as administered by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department (PPR): East and West Parks on the Schuylkill and the surface of the Schuylkill River within those parks. From 1867 to 2010, when park management was overseen by the Fairmount Park Commission, the Wissahickon Valley Park (2,042 acres) was also considered part of Fairmount Park. 

[caption id="attachment_19286" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph taken in Fairmount Park. On the left side of the frame is a road, on either side it is lined with cherry blossom trees in full bloom of pink flowers Fairmount Park, one of the largest public green spaces in an urban setting, includes historic homes, buildings, sculptures, and institutions, including hundreds of cherry trees, some dating to a gift from the Japanese government in 1926. These trees, near the Mann Music Center, are a popular spring destination. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Among noteworthy cultural institutions within Fairmount Park are the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Please Touch Museum, the Horticulture Center, and the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden as well as historic houses and industrial sites such as Mount Pleasant, Woodford, and Strawberry Mansion, and the Fairmount Waterworks. Boathouse Row, on the east bank of the Schuylkill, is an international center for competitive rowing.


“Fairmount” is the prominent hill located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River just north of the original boundary of Philadelphia. It was named by William Penn (1644-1718) when he claimed it as part of his Springettsbury manor. During the eighteenth century, the Schuylkill district was celebrated for the rural estates and elegant villas that lined the river banks west of the evolving city. In 1812, Philadelphia City Council’s watering committee purchased Fairmount for a new waterworks facility. Development of the park began in the 1820s, when gardens and walkways were laid out around the waterworks. The park was expanded in 1844, when the city purchased the nearby Lemon Hill estate. The 1854 Consolidation Act directed the development of public parks, and in 1855 Lemon Hill was dedicated as "Fairmount Park." In 1857, the city acquired the adjoining Sedgeley tract. A year later, James C. Sidney (ca. 1819-81) and Andrew Adams (ca. 1800-60) were hired to relandscape the conjoined estates. Some new roads and plantings were completed, but the project was suspended in the mid-1860s, when park advocates successfully lobbied the state to authorize the development of a much larger park on both sides of the river.

Acts of Assembly in 1867 and 1868 created the Fairmount Park Commission (FPC) with authority to expropriate properties along the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon for recreation and to protect the city's water supply. Although commission members consulted landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-95) about viable strategies for reconfiguring the park landscapes, the FPC decided to make minimal changes so as to protect the “scenic contours” of the historic river estates. This plan was also cheaper. The FPC relied on appropriations from the city, and while funds were made available to compensate landowners whose properties were expropriated, the city resisted financing comprehensive landscape improvements.


The rapid acquisition of properties enabled Philadelphia to host the 1876 Centennial Exhibition on a four-hundred-acre exhibition site in West Park. Funding from city, state, and federal governments as well as private sources enabled the FPC to open roads and build drainage systems within the park as well as to build two new cultural facilities: the Horticulture Hall conservatory and Memorial Hall, which subsequently housed the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art.

[caption id="attachment_19284" align="alignright" width="300"]woodcut engraving of memorial hall in 1876. The building has a domed center and arched door ways leading to the center entrace. a large crowd is gathered around the grounds looking to the stairs of the building In this 1876 wood engraving, a crowd watches as President Ulysses S. Grant cuts the ribbon to open Memorial Hall, launching the Centennial Exhibition that marked the anniversary of U.S. independence. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

By 1900, the Schuylkill and Wissahickon park areas encompassed some three thousand acres, and Philadelphians boasted of having created the country’s largest urban park. During the twentieth century, more land was added to East and West Parks and the Wissahickon until the three areas comprised roughly 4,500 acres. By acquiring so much acreage so quickly, the FPC assembled disparate landscape spaces that ranged from well-tended gardens to broad greenswards and forests. Some cohesion was provided by the Schuylkill and Wissahickon waterways that bisected these spaces, but the lack of a comprehensive plan for landscaping improvements or management produced some unique features. For example, preexisting railroads and major streets were allowed to remain within the park; at a later date parkways and streetcar lines were added to improve access. Fairmount Park’s boundaries varied from the hard edges of city streets to permeable dells along the Wissahickon. The presence of railroads and other thoroughfares left the park areas vulnerable to additional intrusions, most notably I-76, the Schuylkill Expressway, which was cut through the West Park in the 1950s.


The creation of Fairmount Park did not introduce recreational areas into Philadelphia’s urban landscape because both the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon had been popular recreational destinations since the eighteenth century. Many property owners at the Schuylkill and Wissahickon permitted public access to their lands: in the early nineteenth century Henry Pratt admitted the public to his extensive gardens at Lemon Hill. In the late 1850s, newspapers reported hundreds of residents, “white, yellow, brown and black,” assembled for civic festivals in the newly dedicated Fairmount Park. After 1867, both organized sports and more informal forms of recreation continued throughout park areas.  Spectators flocked to the Schuylkill to watch competitive rowing races until baseball supplanted this as a spectator sport. Cyclists first entered the park in the 1880s. Equitation was always popular. During the twentieth century, the FPC added more formal recreational facilities such as ball fields and basketball and tennis courts, as well as entertainment venues, including the Lemon Hill band shell, the Robin Hood Dell, and the Mann Music Center.

By the mid-twentieth century, when city government and the FPC had established numerous parks in other areas of the city, the Schuylkill and Wissahickon parks were considered the nucleus of what became known as the “Fairmount Park System,” encompassing some ten thousand acres citywide. Following the disestablishment of the FPC in 2010, the term “Fairmount Park system” was retired, the Wissahickon was designated as an independent entity, and “Fairmount Park” was redefined to describe only East and West Parks along the Schuylkill.

Elizabeth Milroy is Professor and Department Head of Art & Art History at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University. She is the author of The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016).

Public Parks (Philadelphia)

Philadelphia boasts the oldest and one of the largest urban park systems in the United States, comprising more than one hundred parks encompassing some ten thousand acres. With origins in William Penn’s innovative city plan, Philadelphia’s public green spaces range in size and type from small neighborhood squares to extensive watershed and estuary parks along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers and their tributaries.  Central to the evolution of the city proper, these spaces have served over time as an indispensable resource to the Greater Philadelphia region.

Penn’s Squares

In their 1682 “Portraiture” of Philadelphia, William Penn (1644-1718) and Surveyor-General Thomas Holme (1624-95) laid out a two-square-mile street grid in quadrants, with a ten-acre center square reserved for public buildings and four surrounding eight-acre public squares, modeled after the popular London park called Moorfields. Penn intended that Philadelphia’s city government would landscape and administer the squares, but because he neglected to transfer title to the city no efforts were made to develop them. As a result, the squares lay vacant or were used for pasture, trash dumps, and potter’s fields for more than a century.

[caption id="attachment_19255" align="alignright" width="300"]A color drawing of the Center Square, which at this time was only a white water pump building with steam coming out of the chimney. The rest of the square is lined with green trees. The image also shows a horse and carriage on a trail, and some white fence posts.  This square at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets was one of the five public squares that William Penn designated in his original layout of the city. City Hall was eventually constructed here. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s first true public park was created on the grounds of the State House, when Samuel Vaughan (1720-1802), a merchant and member of the American Philosophical Society, laid out walkways lined with elm saplings in double rows there in 1784. After the state and federal governments departed in 1799 and 1800 respectively, municipal offices moved into the State House and, after resisting efforts by the state to open streets through the grounds, the city purchased the site in 1816 and renovated the gardens.

Because the 1779 Divesting Act had transferred proprietary properties to the state, including Penn’s squares, Philadelphians feared that the legislature might cut streets through these spaces. Efforts to improve public health proved effective in the city’s efforts to gain control of the squares, however. In 1799, in response to devastating yellow fever epidemics, city councils established a municipally-run water distribution system, managed by an appointed watering committee charged with overseeing the delivery of water pumped from the Schuylkill River to homes and businesses. Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) designed the main pumping station that was erected at the center square. When lawns and Lombardy poplars were planted in the square and a fountain installed, this became a popular gathering place and residents petitioned for upgrades to the other squares so they could be used as recreational spaces. Believing that tree plantings would also purify the atmosphere, the city undertook landscaping in the eastern squares by the 1820s, and in 1825 city councils formally renamed the five original squares—Penn (center), Washington (southeast), Franklin (northeast), Rittenhouse (southwest) and Logan (northwest). The city block containing the State House and its adjacent garden were renamed Independence Square. Improvements at the western squares were underway by the 1840s, as residential development proceeded to the Schuylkill and beyond.

Fairmount and the Schuylkill Park

Larger parks also evolved from the city’s innovative municipal water distribution system. When Latrobe’s Centre Square pumphouse proved inadequate, the Watering Committee built a larger and more efficient pumping facility at the base of a reservoir excavated atop the hill called Fairmount just north of the center city limits. The waterworks began operating in 1815. In scale and style, the elegant neoclassical waterworks, designed by Frederick Graff (1775-1847), echoed the private villas lining the nearby river built by wealthy Philadelphians in the previous century. Tourists flocked to Fairmount to stroll through gardens and walkways laid out around the water works and to admire the view from the reservoir of the picturesque Schuylkill district.

[caption id="attachment_19294" align="alignright" width="213"]A black and white map of Fairmount park. The map shows the trails and roads through Fairmount park, and has small images of plants scattered around the map. The map is black and white, and it shows both sections of Fairmount park on both the East and West of the Delaware River. During the early 1800s, the City of Philadelphia began to purchase land along the Schuylkill River to protect the city's water supply, land that eventually became Fairmount Park. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

But the innovative water delivery system also fueled a burgeoning industrial economy. Mills and factories were built along the Schuylkill River and the Wissahickon Creek from Manayunk and Roxborough northward. Industrial wastes were dumped into waterways, as well as sewage produced in the growing communities. But a semi-rural zone separated the center city from these industrializing riverside towns because many of the eighteenth-century Schuylkill estates remained in private hands. By the 1840s, Philadelphians had begun to lobby the city to acquire these properties for use as public parks so as to create a buffer to protect the water supply. Advocates reasoned that because the city had purchased property at Fairmount (outside the city limits) for the municipal waterworks, the city should be able to purchase additional properties thereabouts. When the Lemon Hill estate was put up for sale, Quaker merchant and Watering Committee member Thomas Cope (1768-1854) led a campaign to secure its purchase, which was finalized in 1844.

Faced with the onward march of development in the center city and the surrounding county, Philadelphia’s social reformers envisioned public parks as the “lungs” of the city, believing that they refreshed the health of city dwellers by providing opportunities to commune with nature. Parks could improve the mind as well as the body, an 1851 editorial in the North American declared, by providing “an uncorrupted atmosphere” and places “where we can sometimes turn the sickened eye from the red glare of man’s habitations to the softened hues of bountiful nature.”

City-County Consolidation, 1854

By the mid-nineteenth century, Penn’s public squares were too small to accomplish these ends. Consolidation of the city with the county in 1854 aimed to solve that problem by directing city government to create more public parks, but it did not specify where those spaces should be located or how they would be funded or administered. Some residents advocated a network of small neighborhood parks, following the model of Penn’s squares. Others lobbied for larger properties, as in 1856 when a group of investors led by John Jay Smith (1798-1881) purchased a forty-five-acre tract in the north of the city, renamed it Hunting Park, and hired landscape gardeners to develop the site as a public park.

The enlargement of parks along the Schuylkill, both for recreation and to protect the river, accelerated with consolidation, and in 1855 the city dedicated Lemon Hill as “Fairmount Park.” Two years later, the city acquired the adjoining Sedgeley estate and commissioned James C. Sidney (c. 1819-1881) and Andrew Adams (c. 1800-1860) to relandscape the conjoined properties, although work on this project was suspended in the mid-1860s in response to calls to create a much larger park along both sides of the Schuylkill. Park advocates emphasized the economic and cultural benefits of a large “central” park. It could provide some sense of spatial unity within the sprawling metropolis, similar to New York’s Central Park, and, as in New York, they argued, the park would raise real estate values in surrounding neighborhoods. After the state expanded the city’s power of eminent domain, park supporters in the business community pushed ahead to add hundreds of acres along both banks of the Schuylkill by donating properties and by lobbying for further state legislation in support of expropriating more properties along the Schuylkill to extend the park.

That legislation was enacted in 1867, when the Pennsylvania legislature passed an Act of Assembly creating the sixteen-member Fairmount Park Commission (FPC) with authority to acquire land along the east and west banks of the Schuylkill, “for the health and enjoyment of the people of said city, and the preservation of the purity of the water supply.” In 1868, a second act doubled the East and West Schuylkill parks north to East Falls and added a new park in the Wissahickon Valley. The Wissahickon Creek was a popular recreational destination celebrated for its picturesque scenery by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and George Lippard (1822-1854). But like the Schuylkill, it was also a major industrial waterway. By expropriating land along the creek and closing down the mills, the FPC hoped to expand the pollution buffer and diversify the park landscapes by adding the Wissahickon’s steep bluffs and forests to compleiment the dells and rolling meadows of the Schuylkill properties.

Fairmount Park’s Incremental Development

In contrast to New York’s Central Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where designers were hired to prepare comprehensive plans to reconfigure topography and plantings within a defined precinct, the FPC developed Fairmount Park incrementally and opportunistically. This history of land acquisition set the pattern for growth within Philadelphia’s evolving park system. Although the FPC consulted landscape architects about reconfiguring park properties, it ultimately decided to make minimal changes, both to save expense and to protect the “scenic contours” of the historic river estates as well as to preserve the eighteenth-century houses so as to enshrine the memory of Philadelphia’s colonial grandeur. While the FPC drew on appropriations from the city to compensate landowners whose properties were expropriated, the city was unwilling to finance comprehensive landscape improvements.

Subscribing to Andrew Jackson Downing’s (1815-52) vision of public parks as appropriate sites for cultural institutions, the FPC facilitated the establishment of major civic institutions and organizations. To that end, the Fairmount Park Art Association was formed in 1871 to commission works of public sculpture throughout the city; the first of these commissions were erected in Fairmount Park. Three years later, the Philadelphia Zoo opened on the grounds of The Solitude, formerly the estate of John Penn (1760-1834), one of William Penn’s grandsons. Funding for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, held on a four-hundred-acre site in West Park, enabled the FPC to make much-needed infrastructure improvements. Memorial Hall, one of two permanent buildings erected for the Centennial, became the home of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art that opened in 1877. A second permanent building was Horticulture Hall, operated by the FPC as a public conservatory.

[caption id="attachment_19273" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph taken in Fairmount Park. On the left side of the frame is a road, on either side it is lined with cherry blossom trees in full bloom of pink flowers One of the largest public green spaces in an urban setting, Fairmount Park houses several historic homes, buildings, sculptures, and institutions, and has hosted events large and small since its creation.[/caption]

The FPC’s willingness to accommodate the Centennial Exhibition reveals how Fairmount Park differed significantly from contemporary parks created in other American cities by landscape architects. These places were methodically laid out and planted so as to create a choreographed landscape experience. As integrated designs, these parks could not accommodate significant intrusions such as new roadways or buildings. Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, discouraged museums and zoos in his parks. The FPC pursued a more laissez-faire policy. The absence of a comprehensive design meant that roads or buildings could be added as needed. This approach also extended to recreation. Olmsted required that recreation be permitted only in designated areas because his parks were newly invented works of art. Fairmount Park was not a new creation nor did it introduce new recreational areas. On the contrary, the city and then the FPC simply assumed control of spaces that had been used informally for recreation for many decades.

Neighborhood Parks and Watersheds 

Despite limited appropriations, the FPC continued to acquire acreage, and by 1900 Fairmount Park (the East and West Parks and the Wissahickon) encompassed just under three thousand acres. Tens of thousands of residents visited the park areas annually for boating and team sports, to hike or ride along the Wissahickon paths,  or to visit the zoo, the Pennsylvania Museum, or Horticultural Hall. Yet many members of city government questioned whether the park was too large and too expensive to maintain. Residents of the city’s eastern, northeastern, and southern neighborhoods also complained that the parks were "as inaccessible as the forests of the Alleghenies,” prompting the FPC to partner with transit companies to lay out streetcar lines to and within East and West parks.

Concerns about access revived the campaign for smaller neighborhood parks dispersed throughout the city. Beginning in the 1880s, city councils partnered with the newly-created City Parks Association (CPA), a voluntary organization, to acquire properties that would be administered by the Department of Public Works independently of the FPC. These included League Island, Bartram's Garden, and Stenton (the house and adjoining property), as well as new playgrounds. Additional acreage, such as the Burholme estate in the northeast section of Philadelphia, came through private donations. Inspired by urban planning approaches promoted during the City Beautiful era, the CPA and city government envisioned an integrated network of parks, encompassing the Cobb's Creek, Pennypack Creek, and Tacony Creek watersheds that would be linked by parkways. Unlike the opportunistically assembled and managed Fairmount Park, landscape designers were involved in reconfiguring and improving many of these areas, as in 1912, when the Olmsted Brothers firm was commissioned to design League Island Park in south Philadelphia. Portions of this park were later used for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, and the park was later renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

By the 1920s, the administration of Philadelphia’s public parks had split between two separate entities. The Bureau of Recreation, a city agency, administered many of the small parks and playgrounds developed with the CPA. The semiautonomous FPC had enlarged its purview by gaining control of the watershed parks, as well as many smaller parks, notably Penn’s original squares. It was the FPC that implemented many of the projected parkways, such as cutting a diagonal avenue through the center city street grid from Penn Square to Fairmount to link the Schuylkill parks to the center city. When completed in 1918, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway also opened access to the city’s northwest districts from Center City. The FPC also continued the development of watershed parks along Cobb's Creek, Pennypack Creek, Tacony Creek as well as Poquessing Creek, and opened new parkways to those areas. Roosevelt Boulevard, also completed in 1918, opened up the greater northeast to residential development by linking Hunting Park to the Tacony and Pennypack. Because of the FPC’s leadership, Philadelphia’s park system as a whole came to be referred to as the “Fairmount Park system.”

A Complicated Park System

Philadelphia’s parks may have been among the nation’s most extensive in the early twentieth century, but the opportunistic approach to park building produced an ad hoc system that left many Philadelphians farther than a ten-minute walk from any public green space. As industry in the region declined and Philadelphia’s tax base shrank, park appropriations—never generous—decreased. Divided administration between the Recreation Department and the FPC—which survived the 1951 implementation of the Home Rule Charter—also complicated matters. Under new rules, city politicians were more likely to seek funding for a recreation center or playground in their respective districts than to finance the improvement or maintenance of parks or historic houses administered by the court-appointed FPC, many of whose members were drawn from the ranks of the social and business elite. In 1960, appropriations for parks made up 2.26 percent of the general operating budget. By 1980, appropriations had declined to 0.71 percent, forcing the park commissioners to make deep cuts in staffing and operations. By 2009, appropriations amounted to only 0.32 percent of the municipal operating budget.

After World War II, the FPC had a mixed record of protecting parks and watersheds from development. The commissioners failed to prevent construction of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) through the West Park, though this project was facilitated by the fact that railroads already traversed many sections of the park and an alternate route farther to the west would have been more expansive and controversial because it entailed demolishing residential neighborhoods. A notable success was the defeat of attempts to build the Pulaski Expressway (Pa. Route A 90) through the Tacony and Pennypack watersheds.

During the postwar period, the federal government became involved in Philadelphia’s public parks after Congress authorized the creation of Independence National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service. As formally established in 1956, the park encompassed more than forty acres around Independence Hall and included such landmarks as Carpenters’ Hall, the American Philosophical Society, First Bank of the United States, Second Bank of the United States, Mikveh Israel Cemetery, and Independence Mall.

First Comprehensive Master Plan

In the 1970s and 1980s, the FPC spearheaded a number of conservation and preservation initiatives. In 1983, it initiated the first comprehensive master plan to define strategies for conservation as well as policies and guidelines for land acquisition, finance, and administration in the park system through the year 2000. This plan in turn informed the grant-funded Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program, begun in 1996 to restore the natural areas in seven watershed and estuary parks throughout the city (FDR Park, Cobbs Creek, Fairmount [East and West Parks], Tacony Creek, Pennypack, Poquessing Creek, and the Wissahickon Valley), and build a constituency for the park’s protection through environmental education and public stewardship.

[caption id="attachment_19256" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of the wissahickon valley creek. a waterfall cuts across the frame and a young man in swim trunks walks across the creek Wissahickon Creek enters Philadelphia from Montgomery County and joins Fairmount Park in the northern part of the city, forming the spine of Wissahickon Valley Park. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the late 1990s, the FPC’s effectiveness was in rapid decline. Perceived redundancies with the Department of Recreation, which managed recreational facilities and historic houses as well as parks, prompted cuts in municipal funding. It did not help the FPC that it had been criticized for many years for a lack of transparency and accountability in policy-making decisions and for insufficient park management expertise. A city proposal to generate revenue by leasing parklands to private entities further stymied the commission as its members divided over the advisability (and legality) of the proposal. In a 2008 referendum, Philadelphians voted to abolish the FPC. The Home Rule Charter was duly amended to create a new combined Parks & Recreation Department (PPR), led by a commissioner appointed by the mayor, who would work with an advisory Commission on Parks and Recreation, appointed by City Council, to draft and implement policies and standards governing the use of Philadelphia's parks and recreational facilities.

PPR subsequently undertook management of the city’s parks system within a comprehensive and holistic model for urban sustainability throughout all park areas. The Philadelphia Trail Master Plan, completed in 2011, was developed in cooperation with the City Planning Commission. As part of GreenWorks Philadelphia, launched in 2009, PPR expanded green space acquisitions and upgraded points of access. PPR also partnered with the Philadelphia Water Department, the Philadelphia School District, and the Trust for Public Lands to upgrade infrastructure maintenance, in particular by improving storm water and forest management.

Importance of Public-Private Partnerships

Even before the demise of the FPC, Philadelphia’s parks relied heavily on public-private partnerships to fund capital projects, park stewardship, and programming. Volunteer groups, such as the Friends of the Wissahickon, long played an important role in caring for individual parks, though the financial and logistical resources available to these groups varied widely. The Philadelphia Parks Alliance, an independent advocacy group, formed in 1985 to monitor public policies as well as best practices in parks management and to generate public support for parks and recreation in Philadelphia. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, founded in 2001, took a leading role in several projects such as the revitalization of Hunting Park and Penn Treaty Park and participated in master planning for the East and West Parks. PPR also worked with both the Schuylkill River Development Corporation and the Delaware River City Corporation to revitalize the banks of Philadelphia’s major rivers, most notably with the Schuylkill River Trail, a system of multiuse boardwalks, bike paths, and trails along the length of the Schuylkill, and the establishment of Lardner’s Point Park that link the city and its parks with the surrounding region.

Evolving from William Penn’s innovative vision, Philadelphia’s parks grew first as the result of community activism and then expanded through well-intentioned paternalism. The fate of the city’s parks lies with public-private partnerships that bring elected politicians, municipal managers, and community groups together as equals to identify shared goals, identify viable funding sources, and thereby to plan strategically for the future.

Elizabeth Milroy is Professor and Department Head of Art & Art History at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University. She is the author of The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876 (2016).

Fairmount Park Commission

[caption id="attachment_23155" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of historic Rittenhouse bake house. The building is one story, with a stone facade and the doors and windows have been painted a bright yellow. Friends of Historic RittenhouseTown was formed “to preserve, restore and historically interpret Historic RittenhouseTown.” Here, the bake house stands restored to a colonial aesthetic and serves as the site of historic papermaking displays and workshops. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Fairmount Park Commission (FPC), constituted by the Pennsylvania state legislature in the Park Acts of 1867 and 1868, administered the city’s public park system from 1867 to 2010. Consisting of six municipal officials or their delegates and ten private citizens appointed by the courts to five-year terms, the FPC had authority to expropriate land throughout the city for recreational use and to protect the municipal watersheds. The commission was semi-autonomous, with its own territories, budget, and (until 1972) police force. The commissioners hired park staff, wrote and enforced regulations, and supervised park improvements and maintenance including the opening of roads, trails and streetcar lines, and the licensing of public transit through park areas.

Appointing commissions to implement public works projects was a longstanding practice in England that William Penn and his associates brought to the colony of Pennsylvania by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Other commissions created in Philadelphia opened streets, managed markets and wharves, ran the gas works, and supervised the construction of city hall. Over the course of its existence, the FPC developed a citywide system of parks and recreation sites, including a network of parks along sections of the Schuylkill and Delaware River watersheds. It also built major roads and parkways, including the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Roosevelt Boulevard, and Cobb’s Creek Parkway and took an active role in administering historic sites and cultural institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Fairmount Waterworks. At the time of its disestablishment, the FPC managed more than sixty-three parks covering ten percent of Philadelphia’s area or roughly 10,000 acres.

As a result of the FPC’s considerable, albeit ostensibly nonpartisan, authority, appointment to the commission was highly desirable. Although officially appointed to five-year terms, many of commissioners actually served for life. Influential civic and business leaders who served on the FPC included publisher Morton McMichael (1807-79), military commander George Gordon Meade (1815-72), attorney John G. Johnson (1841-1917), investment banker Edward Stotesbury (1849-1938), radio personality Mary Mason, and attorney Robert N. C. Nix III. Multiple generations of the Price and Widener families served on the FPC, including Eli Kirk Price (1797-1884), a founding commissioner, and his grandson Eli Kirk Price Jr. (1860-1933). Industrialist P.A.B. Widener (1834 -1915) served on the commission from 1889 to his death; his great-grandson Fitz Eugene Dixon (1923-2006) was president of the commission from 1983 to 2002.

The FPC’s financial history is complex. It had executive power but no authority to collect taxes; most revenue from park operations went to the city’s general fund. On the one hand, the FPC was able to obtain loans as well as gifts of land to pursue an expansionist strategy of park development, adding hundreds of acres to create the citywide system by the mid-twentieth century in an effort to realize William Penn’s vision of a “green country town” and to protect watersheds. On the other hand, unlike many American cities where a percentage of tax income is earmarked for park development and maintenance, the FPC had to request maintenance appropriations annually from city administrations that typically resisted providing more funds to improve or upgrade park landscapes and facilities. In contrast to park administrations in other American cities that operated more transparently as municipal departments, the FPC’s operations became increasingly opaque. Between 1876 and 1899, for example, the FPC issued only one annual report.

[caption id="attachment_19300" align="alignright" width="300"]color drawing of the fairmount waterworks. the schuylkill river runs through the center of the frame and a staricase on the left bank leads up to a gazebo, on the right side of the frame is a row of buildings with people walking along the promenade Fairmount Park grew from the city's efforts to ensure a safe and reliable water supply. After a failed attempt by Benjamin Henry Latrobe to create a water system, his apprentice Frederick Gaff and John Davis designed what would come to be known as the Fairmount Waterworks, seen here in an 1833 lithograph. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Growing concerns among city and state legislators about the FPC’s finances led to a 1937 legislative report that recommended the FPC be abolished. Investigators noted that none of the commissioners were trained in parks management and that important decisions often were made without a quorum because many commissioners failed to attend meetings. As a result, the FPC frequently overpaid for unnecessary land purchases and questionable policy decisions. The report also criticized the FPC for focusing too much on land acquisition and for failing to establish recreational facilities on a par with other American cities. In response, the FPC created a committee on recreation and began to add more recreational facilities, though the outbreak of World War II delayed extensive upgrades.

The FPC affirmed its resiliency when it emerged without change under the new Home Rule Charter enacted in 1951. Although nominally assigned to the reorganized Department of Recreation, the commission continued to operate independently, though its effectiveness had started to weaken. Among notable setbacks was the FPC’s failure to prevent construction of the Schuylkill Expressway through West Fairmount Park. Railroads already traversed many sections of the city’s parklands, and an alternate route farther to the west would have been more expansive and politically difficult because it entailed demolishing residential homes. However, there were some notable successes. During the 1960s, the FPC effectively defeated attempts to build an industrial facility in Fernhill Park and a plan to convert East River (now Kelly) Drive to a limited-access highway. In the 1970s, the FPC secured the cancellation of the Pulaski Expressway (PA 90) project that threatened the Tacony and Pennypack Creek watersheds. During the 1980s, it commissioned comprehensive master plans for the conservation of natural systems in the park system, funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

[caption id="attachment_20411" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of "The Rower," a sculpture of John B. Kelly Sr., with Schuylkill River in background. John B. Kelly Sr., Olympic champion rower in the 1920s, was a member and later chairman of the Fairmount Park Commission. (Photograph by R. Tarver for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Further efforts by such commissioners as John B. Kelly (1889-1960) and Fredric R. Mann (1904-87) to improve maintenance and recreational programming, and Ernesta Drinker Ballard (1920-2005) who championed natural lands conservation and historic preservation, extended the commission’s legacy. Throughout the FPC’s existence, most commissioners endeavored to fulfill the founding mandate to provide adequate green space and to protect Philadelphia's water supply. But because the criteria for appointment to the FPC and the actual workings of the commission were unclear, many residents assumed that the city's parks were adequately managed by well-intentioned stewards who nonetheless were unaccountable to voters. As the city’s tax base diminished with the decline of industry, park appropriations dwindled.

The diminishing effectiveness of the commission was most clearly demonstrated in 2007 when City Council attempted to grant the Fox Chase Cancer Center a long-term lease on a section of Burholme Park in northeast Philadelphia donated to the city in 1896 by Robert Ryerss (1831-95). The majority of commissioners supported the lease because it promised much-needed funding, but this was later nullified when the courts determined that any lease of parkland to a private, commercial entity for nonrecreational use abrogated the public trust doctrine. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court upheld this decision, reiterating that the municipal government has a duty to hold the property "in trust for its originally intended use as parkland." The decision cost the FPC what remained of its credibility, and in a 2008 referendum Philadelphians voted to disestablish the commission and the Home Rule Charter was duly amended. In the commission’s place, city parks fell under the administration of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR), led by a commissioner appointed by the mayor, charged with working with an advisory Commission on Parks and Recreation, appointed by City Council to draft and implement policies and standards governing the use of Philadelphia's parks and recreational facilities.

Elizabeth Milroy is Professor and Department Head of Art & Art History at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University. She is the author of The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016).

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