Fairmount Water Works

Once the icon of Philadelphia's technological prowess, aesthetic sensibility, and civic goodwill, the Fairmount Water Works has sunk below the surface of popular and academic memory. The acclaim this water supply system evoked in the first half of the nineteenth-century may now seem curious to those who view this string of neoclassical buildings hugging the shore of the Schuylkill river. However, the Water Works provide an important key to understanding Philadelphia in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Reading the site also helps in viewing several inter-related trends that centered on (re) conceptions of the American metropolis.

Thus, the introduction to this project, "Once and Future City," examines the Water Works as an attempt to physically and ideologically reform the city, and informs the discussions that follow. The second two sections, "Diseased City" and "Writing the Fever" are historical and literary investigations of Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever outbreak, an epidemic that created a chaotic atmosphere of moral and physical 'impurity'. This plague damaged the city's reputation and necessitated a restoration of moral and physical order. The Water Works presented an engineering/architectural/ landscaping solution to these needs.

And so, the third section, "Nature, Technology, Architecture" explores how the mechanics of the Water Works, the buildings that housed it, and the land that surrounded it, worked in concert to create a site that offered both respite from, and redemption for, Philadelphia The design and reception of all three components were shaped by prevailing notions of 'sublime' and 'picturesque' landscape, Greek revival architecture, and notions of technology that sought to harmonize its place vis a vis the former concepts. The 'technologically sublime' Works proved a success both in supplying fresh water to Philadelphia, and so became a model engineering project copied around the world. It also was a magnet for the non- specialist; the machinery fascinated an increasing number of local and international tourists, and the surrounding landscaped park provided respite from the cramped city.

This idyllic, pastoral setting became the most reproduced scene of Philadelphia; and so in the fourth section, "Tourism, Travel Writing, and New Institutions," I discuss the iconography and (re) reception of the city, the early 19th century "Athens of America." The Works, along with other new institutions such as the prison and cemetery-park, and natural wonders like the 'sublime' Niagara Falls, were popular attractions for tourists. The increasingly common genres of travel literature, and 'scenery' albums will be examined to see how the Water Works played into Philadelphia's reputation in the 1820s- 1850s. They did indeed restore order, cleanliness, and increase the fame of the city. As well, the Fairmount site provides a touchstone for viewing later city parks (Central), engineering expos (the Columbian exposition), and much later city planning attempts (The City beautiful movement).


I would like to thank Sara Macro Forrest for introducing me to the history of the Fairmount Water Works and for her helpful suggestions throughout the course of this project. Ed Grusheski, Interpretive Center Director of the Water Works, kindly provided some preliminary information on the Fairmount site. And lastly, Alan Howard and Peter Onuf helped with their insightful criticisms.

Introduction: The Once and Future City

The Diseased City
Nature, Technology, Architecture Tourism: Travel Writing and New Institutions