Sites along the Schuylkill

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The story goes that the Dutch, sailing up the Delaware River, missed the marshy entrance to its largest tributary. Upon discovering their mistake, the Europeans dubbed the waterway the Schuyl Kill, or “Hidden River.” The Dutch were soon squeezed out of Pennsylvania by the Swedes and then the English, but the name somehow stuck, showing up as the “Scool Kill River” on Thomas Holmes’s 1683 Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia, the idealized plan for William Penn’s city imagined as a grid of streets and squares set between two rivers.

The Fairmount Water Works opened in the early nineteenth century and is noted for its architecture as well as advanced engineering—its elegant neoclassical buildings, designed by Frederick Graff and Frederick Graff Jr. and built over the course of some five decades, housed the machinery for pumping water from the river into a huge reservoir. Today the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which rises up behind the Water Works, stands on the site of the reservoir. Photograph by Matt Swern/Flickr Creative Commons.

Walking the Schuylkill Banks

Today, not even the most hapless of travelers is likely to misplace the Schuylkill, which separates Center City (the area represented on Holmes’s map) from the city’s expansion to the west, though one of the river’s newest features may not be immediately visible to the uninitiated. This is the Schuylkill Banks, reached by the stairs and ramps that descend from the eastern side of any one of the bridges that cross the river from John F. Kennedy Boulevard (directly in front of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station) to South Street. What was once a forgotten strip hemmed in by rail tracks and water is now a link in what will eventually be a 130-mile trail extending the length of the river, a surprisingly green and pleasant stretch of reclaimed urban landscape. The Schuylkill Banks has turned one stretch of river into a pleasing urban amenity, but it was just to the north that engineers working more than two centuries ago initiated a far more sweeping project, and one that transformed both the Schuylkill at Philadelphia and the city itself into the places we know today. This was the Fairmount Water Works.

The Fairmount Water Works

By 1801 Philadelphia could boast the nation’s first steam-powered municipal water system. As designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, water from the Schuylkill was drawn from an inlet basin south of Market Street through brick tunnels to a pump house in Centre Square (now the site of City Hall) some three-quarters of a mile away; from there it was distributed to subscribers through a subterranean network of hollowed logs. Advanced as the system was, it soon proved inadequate, and in 1805 Latrobe’s assistant, Frederick Graff, was charged with developing a new plan. He proposed that a reservoir be built atop Faire Mount, the high point conveniently close to both city and river. The water would be pumped up to the heights by two wood-fired steam engines housed in a building at the Schuylkill. From there, it would descend by gravity to the town below.

The new system became operational in 1815, and was converted from steam—modern, but costly and temperamental—to hydraulic power in 1821. A dam was built across the Schuylkill to channel the water needed to drive the eight wheels placed in the new Mill House constructed next to the now silenced Engine House. Quieted, too, was the river north of the dam. The rocky Falls of the Schuylkill a few miles upstream were submerged, and the rapidly moving stream grew still as a lake, suddenly ideal for skating, when frozen, and for the gentlemanly sport of rowing at any other time.

In 1844, in hopes of keeping its water pure by preventing development along the river’s banks, Philadelphia purchased a tract of land immediately adjacent to the Fairmount Water Works, the forty-three-acre estate known as Lemon Hill. Eleven years later the city officially dedicated the site as Fairmount Park, named for the public resource it was meant to protect. In the coming decades it would expand these holdings to some twenty-eight hundred acres, fanning out on both sides of the Schuylkill.

The Fairmount Water Works shut down in 1909, replaced by newer and more advanced facilities. It left behind one of the largest urban park systems in the nation and—in the Water Works complex and the adjacent cluster of buildings known as Boathouse Row—two of urban America’s most beguiling architectural assemblages.

  • Floating above the river, the two-thousand-foot-long Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk connects to the Schuylkill River Trail, extending the pathway from Locust to South Street. This new scenic stretch provides sweeping views of the city’s skyline. Photograph by M. Edlow for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®.
  • Named after a German fairytale novella, the Undine Barge Club, also known as boathouse number 13, was first established in 1856 with the construction of a small shed for its boathouse and the purchase of a four-oared barge dubbed the “Fawn.” Three decades later Frank Furness designed the existing building, which features stained-glass windows in the locker room and a carved walnut mantel in the Trophy Room. Ciricula/ Wikimedia Commons.
  • Boathouse Row is composed of structures in a variety of architectural styles from Victorian Gothic to colonial revival. Michael W. Murphy/Flickr Creative Commons.

Boathouse Row

Boathouse Row is probably seen by most people from the windows of a moving Amtrak car as it approaches or leaves 30th Street Station. The sight is particularly unexpected coming from the north, as the river suddenly appears and opens wide before you. If it is day, you see a string of pitched-roof structures on the opposite bank, domestic in scale, each with a wide boat ramp sloping down into the water; if it is night only their outlines are seen, as if sketched in light by an artist whose preferred medium is the LED bulb. But if the opportunity arises, I highly recommend taking in the houses from the land, and on foot.

There are ten boathouses today, home to a mix of collegiate and school teams and private rowing clubs, the latter overseen by the Schuylkill Navy, founded in 1858 and the oldest governing body of amateur athletics in America. An 1838 lithograph of the view from the Water Works already shows three shells, three oarsmen to a boat, heading out into the calmed waters, though no boathouses are visible on the still undeveloped shore. They were there, though apparently unpresentable by 1859, when the city condemned them. A year later, licenses were issued for the construction of more permanent structures for the member clubs of the Navy as well as one to house the Philadelphia Skating Club. Of these, only the latter survives, at 14 Boathouse Row, a small Italianate building of stone sporting a disproportionately large square cupola on top, the whole looking a bit sad these days; since 1938 it has been home to the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club.

After 1868 the Fairmount Park Commission had design approval over boathouse construction near the Water Works, and the utilitarian stone structure shared by the Malta and Vesper boat clubs, at numbers 9 and 10, was apparently typical of the next phase of development. A symmetrical one-and-a-half-story stone building, it had two wide doors allowing for access to the boats and a single spare gable at the center. What happened next was apparently typical as well; as the design reins were loosened, Boathouse Row took on the appearance we know today. Malta built upward in the style of a suburban Tudor villa, while Vesper exploded into an exuberantly turreted Queen Anne Victorian. The original building beneath is barely noticeable. Another strange hybrid was created at numbers 2 and 3, where a minuscule stone Victorian Gothic cottage with gingerbread trim hangs onto the side of a large brick colonial, home to the Fairmount Rowing Association. The formal Bachelor’s at number 6, with its stern base of red Pompeiian brick supporting a second-story piazza of six arches, is the very image of a Renaissance palazzo. It stands next to the stone, shingle, and pleasantly weathered University Barge Club, which really does look like a Victorian boathouse and nothing else. Number 15, the last building on the row, is perhaps the most incongruous of the lot, and not a boat house at all. It is a perfect peak-roofed New England beach cottage, pinkish-brown shakes with cream-colored trim on the outside, all chintz within—out of which a functioning brick lighthouse sprouts. This is Sedgeley, a women’s club, constructed in 1903 around the 1887 Turtle Rock Light.

And then there is Undine at number 13, home of the rowing club that takes its name from an 1811 German novella about a water spirit. It is a structure of red undressed stone trimmed in dark green and crimson painted wood, with a narrow band of leaded glass tucked beneath the eaves along its north side, and its main facade dominated by a rectangular bay that emerges from its corner at a forty-five-degree angle. The whole manages to evoke the medieval setting of the Undine story while remaining very much a work of its particular time and place. It is immediately recognizable as a building by Frank Furness, the greatest and most inventive of Philadelphia’s architects in the late nineteenth century. It is a fine building indeed amid the charming clutter of Boathouse Row.

  • The Mercury Pavilion is perched on a cliff in Fairmount Park, which has undergone a million renovation, led by landscape architects Menke and Menke. Edlow photograph for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®.
  • General Ulysses S. Grant (1897) by Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter is one of many works of art installed by the Association for Public Art in the “Museum without Walls” in Fairmount Park. Photograph by Caitlin Martin, © Association for Public Art.
  • Fairmount Park’s Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial comprises three terraces displaying seventeen sculptures commissioned over thirty years. Martin photograph © Association for Public Art.

The Great Pavilion, South Garden, and Mercury Pavilion

You have also seen the Water Works if you’ve arrived on a southbound train. Just beyond the boathouses, the level of the river drops slightly in a diagonal cascade, at one end of which stands an octagonal columned pavilion, a gilded eagle alighting on its roof. Beneath, a stone base rises straight up from the river, extending toward the shore and turning at an oblique angle to run along the banks. It is a massive and austere structure, only slightly softened by the arched windows and doorways that punctuate its surface—and it was once the hard-pumping heart of the Water Works, for this is the Mill House, constructed by Graff to hold the wheels that brought water to the city, and expanded five decades later by his son and successor to accommodate more modern and powerful turbines. Yet this is not at all where the eye turns, for atop the flat roof of the original Mill House stands a large open Greek temple, the Great Pavilion. On either side, matching low buildings extend toward a pair of smaller closed temple structures, their porticoes facing out toward the water. A sixth, less remarkable building completes the ensemble at the far end, a more utilitarian looking three-story building with the shape of a Monopoly house. Painted the same creamy color as the others, though, it does little to disturb the elegance of the ensemble.

All but one of these buildings served a function directly relating to the operation of the utility. If the farthest building seems somewhat humdrum sitting next to its classical neighbors, bear in mind that it was designed to look like one of the substantial country houses that dotted the banks of the Schuylkill in its day. It housed the steam engines that originally moved the waters up to the reservoir. One of the small temples served as the office for the precursor to the modern city’s water department, the other was the caretaker’s house. Both of the low buildings afforded access to the Mill House. Only the Great Pavilion, added in 1872, served no real purpose—other, that is, than to give pleasure and to offer visitors a fine place from which to look out on the river.

And in offering pleasure, it was not alone, for the whole of the Water Works complex was designed to be a place of wonder and delight, as it is once more today. When the Engine House had outlived its function, it was refitted as a refreshment saloon for the people who came from near and far to admire the hydraulic marvels. It is now a restaurant and catering facility. Visitors would stroll along the promenade and step into entrance pavilions topped by William Rush’s allegorical sculptures of the Schuylkill; reproductions of the originals now stand in their place. Our visitors would descend to viewing platforms from which they could observe the turning waterwheels, where now an interpretive center welcomes. They might walk the paths of the South Garden adjacent to the Engine House; one of the earliest formal public gardens in the United States, it has been restored to its appearance of about 1870. More ambitiously, they might climb the paths leading to Faire Mount’s summit to reach the classical Mercury Pavilion or the rustic twig-and-timber aerie that pitched out over the rocks into thin air; it is fantastic still, though now reproduced in sensible steel. From there, they could look out upon the Water Works complex, the transformed river, and closest at hand, the huge reservoir that lay at the lofty root of all this. And this is where we take leave of our ancestors, for the reservoir was dismantled in the 1920s, and what we see standing in its place is a marvel of another sort, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art in the Park

Starting in 1872, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) has been tasked with putting art in the park, and the stretch along Boathouse Row and just beyond is a fine place to see works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Frederic Remington, among others. All of these are now exhibits in the “Museum without Walls.” Interpretive plaques feature a phone number to call to hear conversations by artists, writers, and scholars about the piece you are looking at.

By far the longest and most ambitious commission by the Art Association was for the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, following a bequest for a work “emblematical of the history of America.” Sixteen sculptors in all were chosen from an international roster of artists brought together in three exhibitions, in 1933, 1940, and 1947, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for that purpose. Today the names of some of those who participated and were not chosen—Giacometti, Picasso, Calder, Brancusi—are likely to be far more familiar than those who were, and the finished memorial is both politically and artistically conservative. Still, it is quite beautiful, owing largely to Paul Philippe Cret’s design of three terraces connected by a riverside promenade. It is just north of Boathouse Row.