Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Lynn Miller

Benjamin Franklin Parkway

[caption id="attachment_24085" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Side by side black and gray sketch and black and white photograph of parkway with buildings. Jacques Gréber’s 1919 sketch of the Fairmount Parkway (left) comes to life a decade later in a 1929 photograph taken from the same vantage point atop City Hall. Fairmount Parkway was renamed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937. (Sketch from PhillyHistory.org; photograph from Association for Public Art)[/caption]

Created in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway connected the heart of Philadelphia’s downtown to its premier park and over time became a district of cultural institutions and a commons for civic celebrations. The broad boulevard and its monumental structures reflected the European-inspired, nationwide City Beautiful Movement embraced by the emerging city planning profession.

Before the Parkway, Philadelphia’s congested downtown lacked any convenient or ceremonial road to give urban dwellers access to Fairmount Park, its bucolic setting beside the Schuylkill River, and the inspiration of the beautiful classical architecture of the Fairmount Water Works. As the park extended to some three thousand acres along both banks of the Schuylkill shortly after the Civil War, suggestions arose for connecting the park directly to Broad Street. In 1871, an anonymously published pamphlet advocated two “grand avenues” extending from north Broad Street, one leading to the east park entrance and the other to a west entrance. Several years later, the construction of City Hall at Centre (Penn) Square made that the more obvious terminus for a single boulevard leading to Fairmount. Following a preliminary proposal in 1884, City Councils authorized the idea with an ordinance signed into law on April 12, 1892. The planned route was then inscribed on official city maps.

Although immediate execution of the plan faltered, in part due to the financial panic of 1893, it harmonized with trends evident in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the temporary “White City” energized planners to embrace a new City Beautiful Movement. The fair’s design of clustered civic structures bound by a broad thoroughfare demonstrated an alternative to prevailing urban conditions of dark, unhealthy neighborhoods. In contrast, City Beautiful principles would open built-up portions of the city to sunlight and allow greater ease of movement.

In Philadelphia, such visions inspired the 1902 formation of the Philadelphia Parkway Association, an organization made of the city’s most prominent and wealthy residents. They released a new grand plan for a Parkway in March 1903, but debates over location and costs delayed its execution. For the next several years, planners fiddled with the route, some breaking its axis at the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on Logan Square and continuing the road at a slightly different angle to the Green Street entrance to the park. A more costly option, ultimately adopted, cut straight from the northwest corner of City Hall across Logan Square to the foot of Fairmount. With the exact route still unresolved, work began with the demolition of a little row house on north Twenty-First Street on February 22, 1907.

Museum on a Hill

[caption id="attachment_24106" align="alignright" width="300"]Gray wash sketch of the front facade of the Philadelphia Art Museum. This preliminary sketch of what would become known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art appeared in the 1916 edition of Philadelphia’s T SQUARE Club yearbook. (Athenaeum of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Weeks later, Republican Mayor John E. Reyburn (1845-1914) took office. Within days, he received an invitation to the mansion of one of the city’s most influential Republicans and a leader in the parkway project, the immensely rich streetcar baron and art collector, P.A.B. Widener (1834-1915). For years, Widener had been arguing for a new art museum to replace the distant and crowded facility at Memorial Hall. He informed Reyburn that he would personally pay construction costs for a new museum if the mayor agreed to build it atop Fairmount, where, both men understood, the Water Works’ reservoirs, like the rest of the facility, should soon be closed because of the Schuylkill’s pollution. Accepting Widener’s offer, Reyburn was persuaded that the new boulevard should terminate at the foot of Fairmount. The Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned a new architectural plan to represent for the first time a vision of a Parkway complete with proposed grand new civic buildings. The architects named were the French-born Paul P. Cret (1876-1945), Clarence Zantzinger (1872-1954) and partners, and Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938). By late summer 1907, Cret produced a bird’s-eye view of the plan. It showed a grand rectangular plaza at the foot of Fairmount, a classical art museum at the summit, and a smaller semicircular plaza at the northeast corner of the larger one, where a second avenue would run north parallel to the main Parkway before curving toward the river at Boathouse Row.

The project would be very expensive—some two million dollars more than if the roadway had been shifted slightly away from the foot of Fairmount. Reyburn campaigned for more than a year to win support for it. In 1908, voters approved a loan for the project, and in June 1909, the updated plan returned to official city maps. By the time Reyburn left office at the end of 1911, he was hailed for his leadership of the Parkway project and for making Fairmount the site of the new art museum. High costs and seemingly endless delays postponed completion of the art museum for nearly two decades, however, by which time Widener was long dead and his son had angrily withdrawn his earlier offer to give the family’s vast art collection to Philadelphia.

Adding to the delays were disputes between Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg (1843-1918), a reform Republican who succeeded Reyburn in 1912, and the Republican machine that controlled City Councils. After the Pennsylvania legislature in 1915 gave Pennsylvania cities the right to control construction within two hundred feet of parkland, City Councils voted to annex the Parkway to Fairmount Park, which would give control to the Fairmount Park Commission (FPC), then a bastion of Republicanism. Blankenburg vetoed the legislation, only to have the Councils override him. The commission waited to exercise its authority until 1916, when Republicans restored their rule over City Hall with the election of Mayor Thomas B. Smith (1869-1949). But then things moved quickly. By the time the nation entered World War I in April 1917, the Parkway was nearly complete. The Fairmount Parkway, as it was initially named, was declared fully open on October 25, 1918. More than 1,300 properties had been demolished at a cost of $35 million.

Parkway Plan Gets a Second Look

[caption id="attachment_24088" align="alignright" width="241"]Side by side comparison of two designs for the Fairmount Parkway. The completed Fairmount Parkway was based on a plan created by Jacques Gréber in 1917 (right), which was a revised version of the plan created by Paul P. Cret a decade earlier (left). (Both from the Association for Public Art)[/caption]

Seeking to put its own stamp on the Parkway, the Fairmount Park Commission in 1917 hired its own consultant to reexamine the Cret-Zantzinger-Trumbauer plan created nearly a decade earlier. The commission selected French landscape architect Jacques Gréber (1882-1962), the favorite of commission president Edward T. Stotesbury (1849-1938), and early in 1918 approved and published his revised plan. While retaining the basic design of Paul Cret’s 1907 plan, Gréber replaced the monumental plaza that Cret had drawn at the foot of Fairmount with a smaller oval and created a green wedge of largely open space extending down into the city. He also created a traffic circle within Logan Square, which was extended to Twentieth Street. He intended that enlarged space, rather than the plaza at Fairmount, to become the main locus of new public buildings, similar to the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

The 1907 plan in which Paul Cret had played such an important role reflected the influence of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he had trained, and the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and other great Parisian boulevards built during the reign of Napoleon III. Gréber built upon those references, particularly in shifting the allusion to the Place de la Concorde from the foot of Fairmount to Logan Square. Between 1927 and 1941, the Free Library by Julian Abele (1881-1950) and Municipal Court building by John T. Windrim (1866-1934) were completed on the square’s north side, an obvious homage to comparable buildings at Concorde. Cret, who had been away from Philadelphia serving in the French army during World War I, was at first unhappy when he heard of the changes made by his countryman. But after he returned at the close of the war, he and Gréber reconciled and went on to collaborate on the Rodin Museum in 1929.

During the decades while the Parkway was on the drawing boards and under construction, a number of buildings were proposed for it but never constructed. Of those eventually built, most were completed between 1918, when the Parkway opened, and December 1941, when the United States entered World War II. These included the Insurance Company of North America (1925) at Sixteenth Street, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company (1928) at Twenty-Fifth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Philadelphia Council of the Boy Scouts of America (1930) at Twenty-Second and Winter Streets, the School Administration Building (1932) at Twenty-First and Winter, and the Franklin Institute (1934) at Twentieth and the Parkway. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the vast temple crowning the acropolis of Fairmount, officially opened in 1928, although much of its interior remained unfinished.

Monuments on the Parkway

Outdoor monuments also adorned the Parkway. In 1924, the sprawling Fountain of the Three Rivers (Swann Memorial Fountain) by Alexander S. Calder (1870-1945) was unveiled in the center of Logan Circle, the approximate midpoint of the long view from City Hall to the Museum of Art. In 1928, the Washington Monument designed in 1897 by Rudolf Siemering (1835-1905) was moved from its original home at the Green Street entrance of Fairmount Park to the foot of Fairmount and the terminus of the Parkway.

[caption id="attachment_24092" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph of fountain, LOVE statue, and buildings around JFK Plaza. JFK Plaza, located at the Parkway’s southeastern terminus, later became known as “LOVE Park” following the installation of the iconic LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana. (Photograph by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Great Depression, then World War II, brought a halt to new projects for the Parkway, which was renamed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937, a year of festivities marking the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. Little was added during the second half of the twentieth century apart from a juvenile incarceration facility, the Youth Study Center, at Twentieth Street in 1952. But the 1953 demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station, which had long abutted City Hall at its northwestern corner, made way for the creation of John F. Kennedy Plaza in the 1960s at the Parkway’s southeastern terminus in the block bounded by Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Arch Streets, and JFK Boulevard. That plaza atop a municipal parking garage opened a broader vista from City Hall to the Art Museum than ever before. It later became known as “Love Park” following the installation of the iconic LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana (b. 1928). In 1959, the Parkway also gained the Moore Institute of Art (later Moore College of Art) on the south side of Logan Square at Twentieth and Race Streets. Ten years later, between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets, the Friends Select School replaced its buildings dating from 1848 with a new school and office building. At the other end of the Parkway, also in the 1960s, to accommodate ever-increasing automotive traffic Gréber’s small oval at the foot of Fairmount was enlarged into the egg-shaped Eakins 0val, named for artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).

By the start of the twenty-first century, new Parkway projects came to life with prodding from a 1999 report by the private-sector Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, which laid out proposals for “completing” the Parkway in keeping with the visions of Cret and Gréber. New and renovated park space filled the once-empty corners of Logan Square; new benches, sidewalks and crossings created a better experience for pedestrians; a new Dilworth Park replaced the hard-surface Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall; and new cafés opened at Sixteenth Street and on Eighteenth Street on Logan Square. Paine’s Park for skateboarders arose in the lawn between the roadway and the new Schuylkill Banks park along the riverbank, and Eakins Oval also became a temporary park in the summertime. At Twenty-Fifth Street, the Philadelphia Museum of Art annexed and enlarged the Fidelity Mutual Life building as its Perelman Building with galleries, archives, and office space for the museum. Most importantly, in 2012 the Barnes Foundation opened a new Philadelphia campus on the site of the demolished Youth Study Center on the Parkway’s north side between Twentieth and Twenty-First Streets. With the renovation of the Rodin Museum next door, this at last realized much of the century-old dream of making the Parkway an art-lover’s destination.

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway remained one of the greatest achievements of city planning in Philadelphia’s history. The long process that brought it to fruition marked the start of a century in which professionals united with civic leaders and officials to create a bold vision for the heart of the downtown. The result has been both a prime cultural destination for the region and a distinguished civic space for area residents to gather for holidays and other special occasions.

Lynn Miller is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Temple University. He is the author of, among other works, Global Order: Values and Power in International Politics, Crossing the Line (a novel), and the co-author (with James McClelland) of City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System.

Fairmount Water Works

For more than two centuries, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works provided two vitally important, but different, services to the city. The first began when Philadelphia’s municipal water system—the first of its kind anywhere in the modern world—was moved to Fairmount and enlarged. Thanks to its charming design and placement beside the bucolic Schuylkill River, its second and more enduring role began shortly thereafter when the riverbank below Fairmount became the birthplace of what would become the largest landscaped urban park in North America.

Philadelphia had constructed its first waterworks in 1799 at Centre Square, later the site of City Hall. Steam engines pumped fresh water from the Schuylkill into a tunnel along Chestnut Street to the pumping station, from which it was distributed through bored-log pipes throughout the city. Yet, it soon became clear that the plant and its site were too small to accommodate the rapidly growing city. The engines broke down frequently, and the reservoir had to be constantly replenished, at great expense, to keep them running. Within a dozen years, city officials recognized the need to expand the plant significantly if they were to continue to provide clean water to the rapidly growing city.

[caption id="attachment_21106" align="alignright" width="300"]An image of the Fairmount Water Works, from the summit of Fairmount. In this 1838 view of the Fairmount Water Works from the summit of Fairmount, visitors look down from the Mercury Pavilion to the mill house and Schuylkill River beyond. Part of the engine house is visible on the left. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By 1811, a young engineer, Frederick Graff (1775-1847), was superintendent of the waterworks. He recommended that a new and much larger facility be built at Fairmount, just to the northwest of the city boundary and at the Schuylkill’s edge. Water could be pumped up to reservoirs to be constructed on the hill’s summit. From there, gravity would do the rest, allowing water to flow through pipes down into the city. The Watering Committee agreed, a plot of land was acquired at Fairmount, and construction began on August 1, 1811. The initial structure was an engine house, built to hold the two steam engines, pumps, and boilers required to raise Schuylkill water up to the reservoirs. Graff’s design was for a building that might be mistaken for one of the grand country villas built in the previous century along the river bank by affluent citizens as summer retreats.

 The new facility greatly increased the water supply to the city, but still at considerable cost. In 1819, Graff estimated the bill to be almost $31,000 annually for each of the two engines, since 3,650 cords of wood had to be burned to fuel them, in addition to the costs of their staffing and maintenance.  He proposed that the city should abandon the expensive steam technology and build a spillway dam at an angle across the river so that water power could drive the pumps. Once agreed to, construction began in 1819. When completed two years later, the dam was the longest in North America at 2,008 feet.  A mill house for the new water wheels was constructed at river’s edge with its terrace roof just above the level of the riverbank. Behind it, a channel was dug out of the rock to create a forebay so that water would flow into it from above the dam. It would then fall down through flumes to turn the waterwheels, the excess returning to the river below the dam. The change to water power proved very successful financially. The high point for revenues came in 1844 when the Fairmount Water Works supplied an average of 5.3 million gallons of water per day to its 28,082 customers at a cost of $29,713, but returned $151,501 to the city treasury.

[caption id="attachment_21118" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of the South Garden, with the Frederick Graff memorial in the center of the image, and the Marble Fountain in the background. This land next to the engine house, first a quarry for the stone to build the Water Works, then the storage area for its wood-burning steam engines, became the South Garden in the 1830s. (Photograph by Lynn Miller for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Meanwhile, a leisure-time destination had been born. Graff placed two little administrative buildings in the form of Classical temples at each end of the terrace roof of the mill house. Visitors could cross to it via a pedestrian bridge, take in the roar of waters spilling over the wheels, then climb to a small pavilion at the top of Fairmount to inspect the reservoirs and the river. What had been a quarry just below the engine house, then the site for storing the wood to fuel the steam engines, was landscaped between 1829 and 1835 to become the South Garden. A columned gazebo was built at the eastern end of the dam’s spillway and ornamented with a carved wooden eagle. Stages and boats from the foot of Chestnut Street brought visitors up from the city. Once the old steam engines became obsolete, they were sold for scrap, and the engine house was turned into a public saloon. A columned porch added to the riverside harmonized with the little temples on the mill house roof.
 
The Act of Consolidation of 1854 brought some 300,000 residents of what had been outlying districts within the borders of Philadelphia, making expanded facilities at the waterworks imperative. Three years before Philadelphia’s expansion, a new hydraulic turbine was installed, which increased the volume of water available. Since there was no more room for reservoirs atop Fairmount, a new one was built at Corinthian Avenue, which could receive water flowing from a water tower constructed higher on Fairmount. Starting in 1859, a new mill house was built into the mound dam at an angle to the old one to accommodate three new turbines. Its roof also became a terrace from which visitors could view the river. Finally, from 1868 to 1872, the old mill house was again altered to make room for an additional set of three turbines. Frederic Graff Jr. (1817-1890), chief engineer of the city’s Water Department, extended parts of its river wall eight feet into the river. He used a design his father had created nearly fifty years earlier to construct a large columned pavilion in the center of the enlarged terrace roof.  He placed two small entrance houses between it and the earlier small pavilions at either end.

The city had acquired the former estate of Robert Morris, Lemon Hill, in 1845. Its mansion stood on the summit of the height just to the west of Fairmount. Yet, little effort was made to join the two parcels in an enlarged public park until after the Civil War, even though the combined acreage was officially named Fairmount Park in 1845. But finally, in 1867, Pennsylvania’s Public Law 547 authorized Philadelphia, through the newly created Fairmount Park Commission, to acquire land along both sides of the river “as open public ground and Park for the preservation of Schuylkill water and of the health and enjoyment of the people forever.” By 1876, the city had acquired some three thousand acres, including the Wissahickon Valley, carrying the boundaries of Fairmount Park to the northwest city limits.

When the city and its suburbs consolidated in 1854, a number of steam-generated pumping stations came under the jurisdiction of city officials. For a time, the greater economy of water power meant that the Fairmount facility continued to benefit the city financially. Yet within decades it became clear that industrialization along the river, including that well beyond the city’s limits, had polluted the river irremediably. In 1890, Philadelphia suffered a terrible outbreak of cholera and typhoid. Since no room existed at Fairmount to build the kinds of chemical treatment plants that were coming into being elsewhere in the city, its waterworks were decommissioned in 1909. The two mill houses were transformed into a city aquarium in 1911. For a time, sea lions cavorted in the forebay. But in 1923, the forebay was filled in, its pedestrian bridge buried intact. Along with maintenance, attendance declined at the aquarium after World War II. Its life ended in 1962, and a public swimming pool was installed in the new mill house. Flooded by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the pool closed the following year. For nearly two decades, the waterworks sat idle.

[caption id="attachment_21117" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of a fish ladder from the West Bank of the Schuylkiill Dam. In the background of the image one can see the Fairmount Water Works just below the Philadelphia Musuem of Art. Where a canal and lock had once existed on the west bank of the Schuylkill dam, a fish ladder was constructed late in the twentieth century to assist migratory species in their annual swims upstream. Opposite is the Water Works below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photograph by Lynn Miller for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Starting in 1974, the Junior League began to lead an effort to raise the funds necessary to restore the waterworks. In that year, the league gave the city $24,000 to protect the buildings from the weather. Responding to league appeals, the Fairmount Park Commission and the Water Department joined the effort. In 1976, the U.S. secretary of the Interior designated the site a National Historic Landmark. By 1988, advocates had raised $23 million and restoration began. By the time it was largely completed twenty years later, the transformation was nearly complete. The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center was installed in the old mill house; the engine house became a fine restaurant; the South Garden, cliffside paths, and esplanade were returned to their appearance in the mid-nineteenth century. Even the long-gone Rustic Pavilion was recreated in steel to overlook the Water Works from near the summit of Fairmount.

As early as the 1820s, the Fairmount Water Works had become a pleasure ground. The effort to protect the city’s water supply led serendipitously to the creation of one of America’s largest urban parks as an enduring legacy of the modern world’s first municipal water system. The Water Works excited the world early in the nineteenth century with their beauty and economy of operation. For a time in the second half of the twentieth century, their condition grew perilous from neglect. Subsequently restored to iconic status as one of the most recognizable images of Philadelphia, the Water Works became the Delaware River basin’s official watershed education and gateway center for the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area.  

Lynn Miller is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Temple University. He is the author of, among other works, Global Order: Values and Power in International  Politics, Crossing the Line (a novel), and the co-author (with James McClelland) of City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System.

Share This Page: