Fairmount Park Commission

Essay

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Gallery

RittenhouseTown

Visit Philadelphia

German native William Rittenhouse immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony in 1688 and two years later began a paper mill, the first of its kind in the American colonies. Rittenhouse’s business grew steadily and his family continued to mill paper for eight generations while they lived in the small industrial village in what is now the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

In 1890, the Fairmount Park Commission began a series of purchases that brought the remaining buildings under the control of the city of Philadelphia. In 1984, 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.

Roosevelt Boulevard, 1926

Library of Congress

This bird's-eye-view map, c. 1926, depicts rivers, roads, and highways linking Philadelphia to the surrounding region of southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Suggested by Mayor Samuel H. Ashbridge in 1906 as part of the City Beautiful Project, Roosevelt Boulevard (originally called Torresdale Boulevard and later Northeast Boulevard) was created through the efforts of the Fairmount Park Commission.

Establishing an overland transportation link in a new direction, Roosevelt Boulevard is visible extending from its point of origin at North Broad Street (near the center of the map) toward populated Northeast Philadelphia. The road developed in phases between 1903 and 1914. It was extended to the Schuylkill Expressway in 1961.

Frankford Avenue Bridge Over Pennypack Creek

Library of Congress

Through the efforts of the Fairmount Park Commission and the City of Philadelphia, Pennypack Park was established as a public park in 1905. Situated northeast of Philadelphia’s center, the park spans multiple neighborhoods and the Pennypack Creek flows through the center of the park, from Pine Road in Bucks County to the Delaware River in the Mayfair/Torresdale neighborhoods.

Here, the Frankford Avenue Bridge, built 1687, crosses the creek. Ordered by William Penn himself to provide easier access along the King’s Highway (now Frankford Avenue), the bridge is “the oldest stone arch bridge . . . still in service on a major travel route and most likely the oldest stone bridge anywhere in the country,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In the twenty-first century the creek, its many bridges, and the surrounding trails and wildlife are cared for by the Friends of Pennypack Park organization.

Fairmount Water Works

Library of Congress

Following the yellow fever epidemic of the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia sought a more efficient way to supply water to its residents. Architect Benjamin Latrobe designed the first pumphouse at Centre Square but as demand increased this facility proved inadequate. Latrobe’s former assistants Frederick Graff and John Davis then designed a new facility at the Schuylkill that became known as the Fairmount Water Works.

Situated at the city’s edge on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, the large pump house and reservoir successfully provided water to the city’s residents for almost a century. In addition to providing a public service, the waterworks was praised for its appealing architecture and availability as a public space along the waterfront. Even after its closing in 1909, the waterworks continued to draw visitors year-round, as it does to this day.

Strawberry Mansion, 1900

Library of Congress

The Fairmount Park Commission, which governed the park system until 2010, had responsibility for nearly ten thousand acres of parkland that contain the largest collection of historic structures in the state of Pennsylvania.

Strawberry Mansion, seen here, was built in 1789 for Judge William Lewis, a lawyer and abolitionist. Intended as a summer home, the mansion was originally called Summerville and its position along the Schuylkill River was ideal for relaxation. The home was sold to the city of Philadelphia in 1867, over two decades after its second owner, Judge Joseph Hemphill, lived there. In 1926, several women’s clubs joined in an effort to renovate the mansion as a museum and to cultivate “principles of hospitality.”

Southeast View of Sedgeley Mansion

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed Sedgeley Mansion, which was constructed between 1799 and 1802. This 1819 oil painting by Thomas Birch illustrates the sweeping views and expanse of the property, which was atop a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Unlike some of the other mansions in what would become Fairmount Park, Sedgeley was not renovated and preserved as a historic home. By the time the property was acquired by the city of Philadelphia in 1857, the home had fallen in to disrepair. The building was demolished and the land was incorporated into Fairmount Park.

Memorial Hall, 1876

Library of Congress

In this 1876 wood engraving, a crowd watches as President Ulysses S. Grant cuts the ribbon for the opening of Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall to begin the Centennial Exhibition celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of U.S. independence.

The Beaux-Arts-style building housed an art gallery during the exhibition. In 1877 it was reopened as the Pennsylvania Museum of Industrial Art, Philadelphia’s first municipal art museum administered in partnership by the Fairmount Park Commission and a board of trustees. The collections quickly outgrew Memorial Hall and by 1928, a new museum had been built atop the former reservoir at Fairmount.

However, the museum collections were divided between the Fairmount building—later renamed the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and Memorial Hall until the mid-1950s. By 1958, the Fairmount Park Commission had moved its offices into the building, which now also housed a gymnasium and police station. By the early 2000s, the building was in disrepair and underwent an expensive renovation. It was reopened as the new home of the Please Touch Museum, a museum for children, in 2008.

John B. Kelly Sr., The Rower, by Jack Rosen

Visit Philadelphia

John B. Kelly Sr., Olympic champion rower in the 1920s, was a member and later chairman of the Fairmount Park Commission. This sculpture, The Rower, by Jack Rosen, was erected in 1965, near the finish line of many races on the Schuylkill River.

Kelly was also politically active in Philadelphia, and his family was prominent in many ways. His daughter, actress Grace Kelly, became Princess Grace of Monaco, and his son, John B. Kelly Jr., also was a champion rower and served on the Fairmount Park Commission. After John Kelly Jr.'s death in 1985, the name of East River Drive was changed to Kelly Drive in his honor. (Photograph by R. Tarver)

Klein House, Pennypack Environmental Center

PhillyHistory.org
Long administered by the Fairmount Park Commission, Pennypack Environmental Center was originally dedicated as a bird sanctuary in 1958. This photograph shows Klein House, headquarters of the center, which also has an outdoor amphitheater, exhibits, a reference library, and campfire and picnic areas.

Klein House is located at 8600 Veree Road on the edge of 1,600-acre Pennypack Park, which runs along Pennypack Creek in Northeast Philadelphia.

Klein House is an example of buildings that housed workers at the Verree grist mill along the creek in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The mill had supplied flour for General George Washington's troops and became a target of the British army during the Revolutionary War.

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Related Reading

Laws, Ordinances and Regulations Relating to Fairmount Park and Other Parks Under the Control of the Fairmount Park Commission. Philadelphia: For the Commission, 1933.

McClelland, James and Lynn Miller. City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

Milroy, Elizabeth. The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682-1876. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Philadelphia, Commissioners of Fairmount Park. Annual Reports. 1868-1989.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy