Philadelphia's Lost Treasure
Reopens for New Beginning
By Edward N. Eisen
Over the past four years workmen have been burrowing deep into the bowels of the earth below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ever so carefully -- like a small, colony of pack rats -- they have been tunneling into one of America's great architectural and engineering wonders -- The Fairmount Water Works.
This is the story of a great comeback, how an icon that once held the pumps, flumes and turbines of the nation's first municipal water system, has been restored, rescued from the junk pile of history.
The 189-year-old landmark presents an incredible tale -- the city's early struggle to deliver potable water to its residents. The challenges this presented were remarkable: how Philadelphia buried the guts of an old engine house, then camouflaged its creation with a series of classic, Greek-style buildings, then dug it all up over the past four years. So here it is, folks, spanking new, reclaimed ... the site that drew writers, artists and poets -- the likes of Dickens and Twain -- to the banks of the Schuylkill.
Some of the story will be retold Saturday night as members of the Fairmount Park Commission and the Philadelphia Water Department say thank you to supporters who played a key role in funding the reopening effort. Over 900 individuals and organizations, among them the Pew Charitable Trusts, were invited to see the impact their dollars made.
The work was shepherded by Fairmount Park Commission member Ernesta Ballard and a committed group of tireless souls who pooled together a public/private effort to put the famed landmark back into the hands of the people. In all, $22 million was raised over the past 22 years to make it happen, according to Gail Tomlinson, director of the Fairmount Park Water Works Interpretive Center.
Clearly, the work is a continuous process. Yet to be done is the reclamation of a seawall, building of the Interpretive Center and a 200-seat restaurant on the site where turbines once pumped water up to wooden mains but a few miles away at City Hall.
There won't be any speeches tomorrow, says Tomlinson, but guests can expect food, music, dancing, fireworks and more than a few toasts. A looped video will tell the story.
All the burrowing and digging over the past four years was part of several contracts totaling $11 million awarded to J.J. DeLuca, the Wayne, Pa. general contracting firm that has built a reputation in historic renovations. Paul J. McDonald, vice president for Business Development at the company, characterizes the project as the "most significant historic renovation" in the 20-year history of the firm.
Charles Dickens visited the Works in 1840 and wrote: "Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water. ...Powered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water Works ... are no less ornamental than useful ... The river is dammed ... and forced by its own power into...reservoirs, whence the whole city ... is supplied at a trifling expense."
Mark Twain was 18 when he visited the Fairmount Water Works in 1853. With unabashed enthusiasm he wrote his brother about its lovely park, its marble cupid and fountains and the reservoir on the hill where the Philadelphia Museum of Art now stands. By then this remarkable engineering feat was 40 years old, the first large-scale big-city water-supply system.
But the story is much older than that. Philadelphia began claiming leadership in water supply soon after the American Revolution. In 1801 Benjamin Latrobe built a set of steam power pumps just where City Hall stands today. The Centre Square Water Works was its name.
Problem was Centre Square kept failing. Latrobe hired architect Frederick Graff to find a solution. Graff proposed a new pumping station on the Schuylkill, just outside town. It was powered by two steam pumps delivering water to a reservoir built atop Morris Hill, then carried to pumps at City Hall via underground wooden pipes.
Construction on the Engine House, largest in the Water Works' complex, was finished in 1812. To generate steam, it required 3600 cords of wood each year. That was more than the city could afford.
A mound dam was constructed along with a wheelhouse to shelter the wooden wheels powering the pumps. Lovely Greek-style buildings were erected atop the Old Mill House. The city also built a Caretaker's House and the Watering Committee Building at the end of the row. The project was completed in 1822.
The surrounding country side with its rolling hills and view of the river soon became a popular attraction for residents, tourists, artists and writers. The city decided to develop the area into a park. Walkways and fountains were installed. A gazebo was built in 1835 at the end of the mound dam.
In 1861, a New Mill House was constructed between the Old Mill House and the mound dam. The decaying wood and iron wheels in the Old Mill House were replaced by turbines in a major renovation in 1871. A large, open air structure, The Pavilion, and adjoining entrance houses were built the same year.
The Fairmount Water Works continued to serve Philadelphia until the Schuylkill became polluted. It reached epidemic proportions in the 1890s. Finally, the facility was closed in 1909 as the machinery deteriorated and more advanced pumping stations were built elsewhere.
In 1911 the city turned the Old Mill House into an aquarium. Then in the 1940s, the New Mill House became the Kelly Auditorium, a site for dances and special events. A public pool that once accommodated a young actress who married a prince -- Grace Kelly -- was installed.
The building was closed and fell into disrepair when the city built an aquarium in South Philadelphia in the 1960s. The venerable site attracted vagrants. Graffiti lined its walls. Trash littered the old promenade.
In the 1970s, the Junior League of Philadelphia initiated a campaign to rehabilitate the city's faded jewel. But the attempt failed. For a short period, an outdoor cafe operated on the terrace of the Graff Mansion. In 1984, the Watering Committee's Building was restored in a revitalized campaign headed by the Fairmount Park Commission. Again, public support lagged and the project was abandoned.
Work began in earnest again in the 90s as the Philadelphia Water Department and the Fairmount Park Commission began to seek both public and private funding for the project. This time the effort -- pushed vigorously by Ernesta Ballard and supported strongly in the news media -- was successful. Some four years ago the two public bodies sought bids for the restoration. Mark B. Thompson Associates was retained as the architect. J.J. DeLuca was awarded Phase I in the competitive bidding and subsequently won contracts for three additional phases. In all, $11 million in new work went to the firm.
Part of the builder's mission was to tackle the project with small crews, never more than 30, according to Louis Zecca, a vice president with the firm and the point man in overseeing the reclamation. Carefully, meticulously, workmen uncovered pumps, turbines, and flywheels, all buried in the catacombs of the Engine House, the largest, most decorative of the buildings. Operating in confined spaces, DeLuca found the buried treasure the archeologists had targeted: a fix on where the old machinery had stood. "It was amazing to see how water was transferred to City Hall," says Zecca. "It was all done with simple machines."
Some of the most labor-intensive work, says Zecca, were hand excavations and the use of conveyor belts that dug deeply into the bowels of the Engine House. "Sometimes we felt we were working like tunnel rats," he adds.
In these spaces workmen uncovered where flywheels once stood, old pumps, original water mains. To get there, 100 cubic yards of bedrock were unearthed in the spot where a commercial restaurant is scheduled to open next year.
DeLuca's crews performed structural repairs, rehabilitated all the building facades, carved out spaces to hide new piping and duct work to accommodate boilers, oil heaters and air conditioning systems in a structure never designed for this purpose.
Zecca was taken by how workmen nearly two centuries ago moved heavy materials to the river's edge to build the facility. "Today we have modern materiel-handling cranes. They were moving tons of stuff with mules, gin poles and levers," he notes.
The structural repair, says Zecca, "forced us to do some destructive work on the existing facade. But we still had to maintain the integrity of the building and we had to put the structural elements back together in a manner that resembled the original appearance."
Workmen restored the existing stonework around the Water Works, ripped out the old Kelly swimming pool, erected a new site drive, reshaped the promenade and installed new historical balustrades, a reminder of the old Victorian elegance.
Now nearly complete, the restored structures line the river as they once did 189 years ago, lightly wooded and grassy, in classic splendor, basking under a sunlit sky for all to see again.
Behold the new and the old, the Fairmount Water Works: a declared National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark.
"Now," says Zecca, "it's finally calling people back."
Ed Eisen is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
GTCR Buys ATM Operations
of ACS for $180 Million
FORT WASHINGTON, Pa. - GTCR Golder Rauner, LLC, a leading Chicago-based private equity firm managing in excess of $4 billion, announced today that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire the automated teller machine businesses of Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (ACS:NYSE), a worldwide provider of technology solutions and services. The total purchase price was $180 million.
The acquisition will be completed through a newly-formed company, Genpass, Inc. The acquisition marks a re-entry into the transaction processing industry for Bipin C. Shah, a pioneering banking technologist who helped propel MAC to its position as the largest regional ATM system in the country. Shah will head the newly acquired businesses. His business partner and co-founder of Genpass, regory Dillet