Re-viewing Nature; Machines and Industry; Greek Revival Architecture

John Caspar Wild, View of Fairmount Water Works, 1838

For much of America's early history the wilderness was seen as profane and dangerous. Many had a similar view of the city as well, and thus sought a 'middle' landscape between the two in which nature was controlled and ordered by man. However, at the close of the eighteenth-century more romantic views towards the natural began to supplant the fears of a 'howling wilderness'. Nature's forces, embodied in her mountains and waterfalls, still evoked fear, though with this fear came a quasi-religious reverance.

This feeling for the 'sublime' was in turn transferred to another fear and awe producing phenomenon: technology. However, as Jean Matthews notes, "most Americans probably regarded nature less as a source of spiritual uplift than as raw material for transformation" (108). This utilitarian view of nature was championed by those proponents of the 'useful arts' and manufacturing. The view of technology (the term was actually re-coined in 1829 by Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow) as a power that could fulfill the inherent greatness of America found its niche in the cities. There, the symbiotic pair of technology and industry offered both the solutions, and causes for a 'disordered' and rapidly changing society.

In some cases, the technological also came to be seen as a threat to the natural; as the mills of the industrial revolution dirtied the air and water, many questioned the wisdom of embracing this new force. Perhaps in response to human fears about the power unleashed by the steam engine and other new marvels, some manufactures sought to 'disguise' their new machines with painted and molded leaves, vines, and flowers, or with architectural motifs. This practice visually linked technology to the natural world, and with the trends such as Greek Revival architecture. And as the historian Roger Kennedy claims, the new Greek buildings occupy the desired pastoral 'middle state' "between corruption (Europe) and savagery (the West)."


At the turn of the 18th century educated Americans categorized their responses to the natural in accordance to highly developed, yet often only loosely coherent, aesthetic philosophies. The Enlightenment glossing of Classical concepts had produced a set of descriptives used to explain both the visual content of a landscape as well as the viewer's response to that particularly ordered grouping of trees, rocks, mountains, water, etc. The landscape's "metaphoric powers" (in Leo Marx's words) evoked aesthetic, moral, religious, and political responses. The categorization of this "vocabulary of response" can be divided into two broad concepts, that of the 'Pastoral', including ideas of the 'Picturesque' and the 'Beautiful'; and that of the 'Sublime', with its industrial-age cousin, the 'Technological Sublime'.

Gardens at the Water Works

Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden provides an important explanation of how many of these concepts were transplanted to the "Garden" of the New World. He finds that the classical literary mode of the pastoral, exemplified by the Virgilian Ode, has been "applied to reality" thus bifurcating the pastoral ideal and the pastoral design. Behind this split are competing conceptions of the American wilderness: Is it edenic? Or is it a wasteland? Or, can and should Nature be improved upon?. Jeffersonian pastoralism answers this question by locating a via media between the 'primitive' and the 'civilized', by improving upon Nature, but fearing the destructive forces of urbanization and mechanization. The pastoral is thus Nature redeemed by the hand of Man.

The terms used most often, though with no precise regularity, to describe the pastoral were 'beautiful' and 'picturesque'. Edward Foster in his Civilized Wilderness claims that 'beautiful' was used more often to describe rolling hills, and 'smooth' landscape, while picturesque was used to describe more rocky and irregular landscapes (14). However, even these categorizations are somewhat arbitrary; many writers use them interchangeably, and some such as Andrew Jackson Downing offer more theoretical backing to the terms. In his dichotomy, 'beautiful' suggests 'peace', while picturesque, 'power' (Foster 14). Picturesque also, as its name implies, means 'ordered as in a picture' pointing to the idea of 'concordia discor'--order out of disorder. In this last distinction we can draw a useful line between the idea of the pastoral as something ordered/controlled by man, and the idea of the sublime as beyond human control, and thus both more terrifying, and more inspiring.

The 'Sublime' Mt Washington

Theories of the sublime re-surfaced in European thought with the seventeenth- century rediscovery of Longinus' treatise on the subject. However, his descriptions of the sublime as a rhetorical style gave way to more encompassing and profound notions. In 1757 Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in which he names awe-inspiring works of nature such as the mountain or the cataract, as vessels of the sublime: "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, what is any sort terrible. . .is a source of the sublime." Kant further inscribes the sublime in one's response to the object, rather than the object itself--a response predicated upon a certain terror felt in relation to Nature's power, that in turn crystallized in one's realization of one's own powers. The question of human power and agency thus comes to the fore, though it is still secondary to the grandeur of the natural.

The great heirs to these theories of the sublime were the Romantic poets who in turn revised these concepts. M.H. Abrams, following Samuel Monk, notes that Wordsworth conjoined two views of nature in his poetry; the sublime and the beautiful, which existed both symbiotically and antithetically.

By and large the beautiful is small in scale, orderly and tranquil, effects pleasure in the observer, and is associated with love; while the sublime is vast (hence suggestive of infinity), wild, tumultuous, and awful, is associated with pain, and evokes ambivalent feelings of terror and admiration." (Abrams, 98)
Abrams finds Wordsworth's particular "theodicy of the landscape" a reconciliation between the beautiful and the sublime that the poet would describe as "Of the same face, blossoms on one tree/Characters of the great Apocalypse." For the Romantics, light and dark, terror and peace are the human condition. And the union of the human mind with both sides of the natural could produce an earthly paradise.

Albert Bierstadt, Niagara Falls, 1880

While Wordsworth's epiphany occurred at Mt. Snowdon, for many America's Niagara Falls provided a more awe-inspiring, revelatory sublime. In its unprecedented size and power, the Niagara overwhelmed European conceptions of a 'cataract', and as such became a popular destination for tourists and subject for artists. As Patrick McGreevey writes:

Niagara Falls appears to have functioned as a device for reverie-- a screen which nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans could project their personal explorations of certain collective pre- occupations. Because the meanings of death, nature, and the future, along with related issues pertaining to technology and religion, were themselves topics of much interest and discussion in the nineteenth-century, there is in the Niagara literature an intertextual relation to this larger discussion. (11)
Much else has been written on Niagara's place as an icon of the sublime, and it is a subject that will resurface in the next section. For the present, I will let it stand in as the 'pure sublime', a foil by which we can understand how the Water Works counters Longinus' claim that we should not admire a small river that "ministers to our necessities." The water works was more than just a utilitarian engineering project; it was also beautiful, and as we shall see, 'sublime' as well.

Ideas of the sublime found their greatest 'objective' realization in the massive mountains, waterfalls, and other natural phenomena of America. If there were a competition between indices of the sublime, Europe had nothing that could compete with Niagara Falls. However, Americans were not content with winning the Revolution or the contest for natural splendor--they wanted also to compete in the fields of science, technology, and industry (among other things). This growing interest and emphasis on urban industry shifted the country's focus away from Jeffersonian agrarianism in a decisive, though hardly complete, manner.

The Water Works' New Machinery

Leo Marx locates in early 19th century America the emergence of the "rhetoric of the technological sublime" and claims that "the entire relation between man and nature is being transformed" (195). Technology has joined, and even supplanted, nature as the source of the sublime. Viewing the railroad/steam engine as the most potent realization of this change, Marx quotes Charles Caldwell as voice to this new turn in thought:

Objects of exalted power and grandeur elevate the mind that seriously dwells on them, and impart to it greater compass and strength. Alpine scenery and an embattled ocean deepen contemplation, and give their own sublimity to the conceptions of the beholders. The same will be true of our system of Rail-roads. Its vastness and magnificence will prove communicable, and add to the standard of intellect of our country (195).
Caldwell, an 'indentured' junior intern at Bush Hill in the summer of 1793, reiterates the concept of the sublime and deftly relocates its Burkean source in the railroad, rather than in majestic Nature. Importantly, he re-inscribes the benefits imparted by the sublime in a national-intellectual frame, rather than a personal-aesthetic, or religious model. There is however, slippage in his logic of equivalencies, pointing both to some ambiguity as to the exact analogy between the 'natural' and the 'technological' sublime, as well as to a more utilitarian conception of the sublime. For what he posits--a raising of national intelligence sounds more pragmatic and patriotic than individual revelation. As well, Caldwell places the sublime power of the railroad in the future, as not yet realized. Trains have yet to completely replace mountains; the original source of the sublime. The awesome power of nature still held sway, at least in the early part of the 19th century.


Tenche Coxe, vice president of the Society for the Encouragement of Useful Arts and Manufactures, and Assistant Treasury Secretary under Hamilton, provides one of the more insistent voices in the late 18th century in favor of improving nature for the benefit of business. His prophetic calls for the primacy of manufacturing align with several other prominent Philadelphian voices.

Strange as it may appear they also card, spin and even weave, it is said by water in the European factories.

Steam mills have not been adopted in America, but we shall probably see them after a short time. . .

For Coxe, failing to incorporate new technologies would be an abuse of nature: "Unless business of this kind is carried on, certain great natural powers of the country will remain inactive and useless. Our numerous mill seats. . . would be given by providence in vain" (Marx, 157). He moves the Jeffersonian 'middle path' strongly in the direction of mechanization, though echoes the idea that this country's natural resources are its primary strength.

The problems with this approach--the exploitation of natural resources to the detriment of the public--is another side of the Water Works' story. The system, at least for a period, was able to tenuously balance public and private needs; a public park, and public water supply benefited the entire city. The site's uniqueness and fame proved a boon to hoteliers and restaurateurs, and the dam that funneled water into the wheel houses also allowed for the passage of barges. However, the same mills that Coxe advocated ultimately destroyed the water quality of the Schuylkill. And through the mid 1800's the city bought plots of land upstream from the works in an attempt to rid the banks of the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon of the many polluting factories. However, in its 'golden age' from the 1820s through the 1850s, the Fairmount Water Works avoided the problem that Fanny Kemble observed in Rochester, where the Genesee had been reduced to a trickle in order to run a multitude of mills: "truly, mills and steam-engines are wonderful things, and I know that man must live; but I wish it were not expedient to destroy what God has made so very beautiful in order to make it useful."

In the early republic, many sought to balance the value of 'usefulness' versus that of 'beauty'. As de Tocqueville noted: "democratic peoples. . .cultivate those arts which help make life comfortable rather than those which adorn it. They habitually put use before beauty, and they want beauty itself to be useful." He seems to be echoing that most practical of Philadelphians, Benjamin Franklin, who claimed "nothing is good or beautiful but in the measure that it is useful." However, as John Kasson has observed, "yet the converse was true as well: American wanted the useful to be beautiful."(142) These feelings applied most obviously to the 'useful arts', the new technologies of the industrial revolution. The same sentiment was used to explain the design of the Centre Square (and Fairmount) Water Works: "This edifice, on account of its conspicuous situation, is designed to be ornamental, as well as useful to the city (Philadelphia, 28)

Americans desired to integrate the new machines into the physical and moral framework of a young nation. One manner in which this ideal was achieved was through design and ornamentation. Thus, new engines, combines, pumps etc., were embellished with 'naturalistic' elements such as vines, flowers, and leaves. Concomitantly, manufactures produced machines decorated with Doric columns or gothic arches. The natural and architectural motifs resonated with landscaping and design trends. However, the 'decorated' machine contrasts with another school of industrial design. As John Kouwenhoven notes in his book Made in America, Americans also created machines in a "vernacular tradition" which merged form and function. He speaks to the practice of small shop inventiveness, of the type of work produced by Philadelphia's Oliver Evans, the designer of one of the Fairmount Water Works' steam engines. However, Kasson complicates the picture by questioning whether this 'tradition' was as popular and democratic as later critics would claim. He finds that the purer forms were championed by the mid 19th century writer, though "manufacturers preferred to display works with a bolder and more overt artistic statement." (Kasson, 155) The division seems to be between the larger manufactures and the inventor; and as the century progressed the former became ascendant.

They also sought to integrate these new, still strange product with both the natural and man-made environments. As Kasson points out, this process was one of both denial and affirmation. Commentators such as Lewis Mumford and Marvin Fisher have sought to explain machine decoration as a denial of the destructive environmental impact that manufacturing had upon the land and landscape--upon the ecosystem and the esthetic value of the 'natural'. "When these machines were brightly painted or garbed in Greek Revival. . .Their invitation to be viewed as works of art became almost irresistible" (Kasson, 161). By placing machines in Greek context, manufacturers responded to a larger movement towards the revival of the forms, ideals, and legacies of that ancient civilization. This movement parallels another trend in which many looked towards "Nature and Progress as surrogates" to history (Kammen, 41). Greek revival complicates this distinction because it acknowledges a particular non-American past. Though when applied to new machinery, the Greek forms do champion 'progress', and a particularly American version of history.

Architecture of the Water Works: Greek Revival Philadelphia

"When I resided in the Athens of America. . . "

					-- Gilbert Stuart on Philadelphia

"City nicknames reflect and exaggerate the basic values and myths of America." -- Yi-Fu Tuan Topophilia, 203.

The Water Works' original mill house of 1815 replaced the neo classical monument of the Centre Square works with the provincial, rough hewn appearance of the federal era country mansion . However, Frederick Graff's additions five years later gave the Fairmount works a markedly different look. The new buildings were constructed in the increasingly popular Greek revival style which flourished in this country from the 1820s through the 1850s. 'Style', though is perhaps too light a word, for the revival of ancient Greek architecture correlated, if not precisely, then significantly with the renewed interest of the republican values of ancient Athens, and the 'purity' of intent of America's founding fathers. As the architectural historian Roger Kennedy explains, " The American Greek Revival arose as many American sensed the nation to be adrift after its heroic revolutionary accomplishments, feared its centrifugal disorder, but at the same time celebrated triumphs of their own" (3-4).

Philadelphia's leader in this trend was the well known banker Nicholas Biddle. In 1811 he assumed control of the journal Port Folio which, in a strongly nationalistic vein, offered a variety of essays on arts, architecture, and financial policy. Biddle's own interest in 'things Greek' had been spawned several years earlier while touring that country. As Kennedy writes: "Young, patriotic, and full of enthusiasm, he saw ancient temples set against a romantic landscape and wrote of them as villas in the Pennsylvania woods" (169). This idealistic musing corresponded with that of those who hoped for newly independent Greece a small revival of its past glory. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785 that he hoped the Greeks would return to the "classical Models" and "language of Homer" (Kennedy, 168), though he himself had less interest in their architecture than did Biddle's generation.

Biddle was determined to bring to his new country some of the best of the old, despite his intense nationalism. Indeed, he viewed the United States as "more civilized, more moral, more enlightened, and better than any whose exploits have been transmitted by history" (Kennedy, 173). America was better especially than the rival England, who for the past century associated itself more with imperial Rome than democratic Athens. And if we take Kennedy's pronouncement that Greek Revival architecture physically promoted and embodied a revival in American pride, especially after the war of 1812, then Philadelphia was at the center of this renewal. In addition to the Water Works, the city was home to several other Greek Revival gems: Girard College, Biddle's country estate, Andalusia, and the Second Bank of the United States. The use of the Greek style was both an appropriation and declaration of independence; its solid simple lines an affront to the lavish, effete Europe.

Neither Biddle nor Latrobe, who wrote often in the Port Folio, meant to copy the Greeks, but reinterpret them: "The days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America, and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World" (Biddle in Kennedy,189). For Biddle, and perhaps to a lesser extent for Latrobe and his heir to Water Works design, Frederick Graff, the project was as much regional as it was national. Even as the District of Columbia began to sprout neoclassical and Greek revival buildings, Philadelphians sought to expand their intellectual, cultural, and financial capital. The Water Works' new Greek additions speak to this timelessness, their solidity a bulwark against rapid change, both linking America to, and freeing it from, its European past. Nicholas Biddle was quick to proclaim the ascendancy of his country: "There is not a more picturesque or poetic region than our own--Arcadia itself is no more beautiful, nor yet more sonorous than Pennsylvania; and the Thames, or even the Arno, are inspired brooks, by the side of the Hudson or the Schuylkill." (191)

Between Metropolis and Wilderness, Machine and Man:
the Hybrid Water Works

The Works cloaked the raw power of their new industrial engines with more than a veneer, and more than the added decoration of many new machines. Fairmount's mechanical works were contained by the classical order evoked by the structures. The buildings stood distinctly and starkly in contrast with the brown-gray fieldstone, trees, and river, not attempting to blend in with their natural surroundings; they were in some ways of man, and against nature. The actual wheels and pumps of the Works were unadorned, though at the same time were housed in a Greek temple. This dichotomy plays into and against the trend of decorating new machinery with a classical motif. The machine's design was a product of Kouwenhoven's 'vernacular' ingenuity, of form dictating function; thus it was unlike much of the 'decorated' Greek revival machinery that John Kasson notes. However, by housing the works in a Greek revival bulding the connections to Athenian values were amplified.

And as Wordsworth spliced the beautiful upon the sublime, so the Water Works conjoin the pastoral with the technological sublime. In doing so, the site gave Philadelphians access to both the pleasant qualities associated with the country and the urban version of the sublime found in American wilderness. The complex presents a pastoral scene-- idyllic river, landscaped gardens, charming neoclassic or country style buildings--at the same time it contains a version of the Locomotive, the massive machinery of the wheels and gears. However, in reading viewers' responses to the works one realizes that the 'beauty' of the site many times outweighed its 'sublime' aspects. The gears by their hidden nature were less a part of the site, though they did provide a unique addition to the pastoral park. We cannot discount the interest that this machinery held for tourist in the heyday of the Works; artists depicted both the Greek temple exterior, and the machinery inside. The contrast between the two was the point, and the power of the site. And we must recall Simon Pugh's observation that "pastoral pleasure is social, not natural."(148)

Importantly, the mill houses were open to the public who came in great numbers to marvel at the gears and wheels, moving efficiently, noiselessly, and powerfully. In some ways the Greek temples of the water works did function as religious structures. For while the pastoral scene surrounding the houses served as a public meeting place, the sublimely massive water wheels aroused more 'religious' feeling. However, the beauty and terror are at once more obvious and more complex than that exhibited in Marx's locomotive, or by Niagara Falls. In some ways they sublimate the sublime; as mentioned, the technology is hidden, and in some ways secondary to the pastoral. Yet once inside the mill house the charming landscape is left behind; the machine dominates and fascinates. The Works mix the emotions in the way a modern amusement park does; one follows a peaceful monorail or boat ride with the thrill of the roller coaster.

The Works also call into question, in part, the agency of man--for the wheels were powered by the river, and the river tamed by man. This fact speaks of cooperation with nature; as William Rush's sculpture shows, the Schuykill is liberated, rather than tamed, by the Water Works, and thus liberates humanity. In turn, the site offers a complex commentary in the ways that Nature could be useful to Man: as a respite from the city, as a provider of water, as an aesthetic tableau, as outlet for ( as well as inducer of) excess energies and passions, and as finally as a provider of material wealth.

In some ways the Works also predicts in a curious way later attempts to harness the power of Niagara Falls, and to surround that sublime nature with a landscaped park. Though vague ideas of harnessing the power of the Falls, or to make them a center of a great industrial metropolis, it was not until the end of the 1896 that they could be harnessed for power generation. And in the 1880s Frederick Law Olmsted planned a version of his Central Park for Niagara. While no exact cause and effect can be drawn, it is notable that the Water Works successfully (though on a more modest scale, and only for a time) enacted that merger of the sublime and the pastoral, the practical and the whimsical, that Niagara's planners had been seeking. As we shall see in the next paean, the Water Works combined beauty and utility magnificently.

Of the many accounts published in the 'Golden Age' of the Waterworks, Caroline Gilman's delves most vigorously into all of the issues thus far presented. From her The Poetry of Traveling in the United States

I visited Fair Mount, and rejoiced like another Undine in its waterfalls and fountains, and felt how the river was like God's spirit, spreading somewhere at first in unattainable beauty, then carried through the dark channels of human life, seemingly lost until man inquires and strives for it, and then breaking out in new modifications, pouring its blessings on all who ask, and they are glad.

I am grateful for beauty in all its forms. Had I been carried blindfolded to the machinery at Fair Mount, and then permitted to behold it alone, I should have been agreeably excited by its singular combination of simplicity and power; its wheels would have rolled on a while in my memory, I should have paid the usual tribute of wonder to man's ingenuity, and have dreamt of those iron arms that seem so human in their operations; but now that I have gazed on the placid river, marked the shaded green of its beautiful borders, seen the sculptured images awakening graceful associations, stood by the clear basin and felt a longing like a youth to rush in and stand under its showery fountain, heard the roar of the giant Art contending with and counteracting the giant Nature, climbed the precipitous eminence, and watched the setting sun throwing his golden smile on all, this leaves a deeper stamp--the stamp of the beautiful. . ..(32)

Gilman begins by reiterating in words, what the sculptor William Rush had depicted in the allegory of the Schuykill. With the advent of the Works, the Schuylkill is freed, and depicted as a beautiful woman reclining amongst the fountains, that are "pouring. . .blessings on all those who ask." The experience of viewing the work is revelatory, especially because Gilman takes in the various components of the works--the art of the beautiful scenery that is counteracted by the simple power of an anthropomorphized technology, both of which mold nature into a more beauteous form. The language, exultation, and imagery speak of a religious epiphany, though not one produced by the horror of the sublime, but the charge of beauty. Gilman's travelogue, and enthusiasm for the Water Works was not unique however; many Europeans and Americans would respond likewise.

Once and Future City Diseased City Tourism: Travel Writing and New Institutions Bibliography