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.

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)

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.

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)

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

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Fairmount Park Map

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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. The first property the city purchased for this purpose was a forty-three-acre parcel previously owned by Henry Pratt, situated just north of the waterworks on the east bank of the river in this map. Fairmount Park was officially established in 1855 and expansion plans were begun soon after. This 1859 map shows the first proposed expansions of the park to the west of the river (the left portion of land on this map).

Fairmount Waterworks, 2015

In 1812, Philadelphia City Council’s watering committee purchased Fairmount on the edge of the city for a new waterworks facility. Development of the park began in the 1820s, when gardens and walkways were laid out around the waterworks.

The waterworks ceased being the city's source of water after about a century, but the site remained a popular destination, as in this photograph from April 2015. The waterworks are the cluster of buildings at lower right, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art towering above. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Fairmount Waterworks

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.

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 in 2008.

Shofuso Japanese Garden

Visit Philadelphia

Located within the Horticulture Center, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden has become one of Fairmount Park's feature attractions. The grounds on which it stands once housed the Nio-mon Japanese Temple Gate, which the city of Philadelphia acquired in 1908 from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The gardens surrounding it were funded in 1909 by businessman and art collector John T. Morris, whose own estate later became the Morris Arboretum. In 1955, the original temple gate, which dated to the 1600s, was destroyed by fire.

The building in place today was built in 1953 as a goodwill offering from post-war Japan to the United States. It was built using traditional Japanese materials and methods and was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for two years. After the MOMA exhibition closed, the house was offered to Fairmount Park as a replacement for the destroyed temple gate. It opened to the Philadelphia public in 1958. The building gradually fell into disrepair, but was saved by the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. It is now managed and maintained by a nonprofit organization. In 2007, artist Hiroshi Senju painted and donated twenty large-scale waterfall paintings to replace original interior elements damaged by vandals. (Photograph by G. Widman)

Fairmount Park Cherry Blossoms

Visit Philadelphia

Philadelphia City Councils first purchased land along the Schuylkill north of the city boundaries in 1812 for a larger and more efficient waterworks pumping station and reservoir. Lining the banks nearby were suburban estates owned by members of the city’s elite that would later be acquired to form Fairmount Park. One of the largest riparian green spaces in an urban setting, the park now houses several important historic homes, as well as public sculptures and major cultural institutions, and hosts events large and small.

In 1926, as Philadelphia celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the Japanese government donated cherry trees to the city in honor of the anniversary. Since then, over a thousand cherry trees have flourished in Fairmount Park and many Philadelphians consider their blooming and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival among the first signs of spring. (Photograph by M. Fischetti)

Boathouse Row

Visit Philadelphia

Boathouse Row, shown here late in the twentieth century, is one of the sights visitors to Philadelphia see when they enter the city from the west on the Schuylkill Expressway or Martin Luther King Drive. Situated along the Schuylkill River in East Fairmount Park, the boathouses that make up this architectural landmark represent Philadelphia’s fusion of sport and history. Various rowing organizations have used the boathouses over the years. By the early twenty-first century, the boathouses were shared by a variety of private clubs and local university teams, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and La Salle University. The earliest rowing clubs, established in the 1830s, have not survived. However, between 1853 and 1856, Undine, University, and Bachelors’ Barge Clubs were all founded and remained in operation in the twenty-first century.

Though the clubhouses of Boathouse Row draw attention at any time of day, viewing the buildings at night is especially memorable. At night, the lights reflect off the river and the display has become one of the city’s iconic images. (Photograph by R. Kennedy)

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Related Reading

Contosta, David and Carol Franklin. Metropolitan Paradise:, the Struggle for Nature in the City: Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley, 1620-2020. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2010.

[Keyser, Charles.] Fairmount Park, Sketches of Its Scenery, Waters, and History. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger, 1871.

Klein, Esther. Fairmount Park: A History and a Guidebook. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Harcum Junior College Press, 1974.

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

Lewis, Michael J. “The First Design for Fairmount Park,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 130, no. 3 (July 2006).

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.

Scharf, J. Thomas and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 3 vols. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884.

Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

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