Landscapes, Streetscapes, Parks & Garden Fixtures

A Path Taken

The complex architectural metalwork at the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia was recently restored.

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The Fairmount Water Works (with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background) was designed by Frederick Graff in 1812 and was the first municipal waterworks in the country. All photos: courtesy of Mark B. Thompson Associates, LLC

By Lynne Lavelle

While they are a vital community resource, waterworks do not usually inspire the same affection, or levels of preservation activism, as religious buildings, courthouses, theaters or monuments. The Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia, PA, is an exception. It was designed in 1812 by local engineer and architect Frederick Graff and, upon opening, was hailed as a marvel of both fields.

At a time when yellow fever outbreaks were common, the city was the first in the country to regard the delivery of safe water as a municipal responsibility. The Fairmount Water Works may have resembled a collection of stately buildings, but behind the scenes, steam engines, then waterwheels (1822), then water-driven Jonval turbines (1872) lifted water from the river – water that was clean and safe. The waterworks formed the basis for what would become the Fairmount Park System – incorporating the cliff side and several gardens – and was considered one of the most beautiful spots in the city. Breathtaking views of the Schuylkill River were an added bonus. Fairmount remained a city attraction for almost a century but fell into disrepair after the waterworks was decommissioned in 1909.

Robinson Iron relied on historical images to re-create the railing on the Cliffside path. The firm used a three-dimensional router to replicate the complex curves and changes of angle.

The masonry arch bridge on the Cliffside path connects the waterworks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, boosting fundraising initiatives by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Fairmount Park Commission and The Fund for the Water Works for its restoration. Work began in 1995, under local firm Mark B. Thompson Associates LLC, to restore and reuse the Engine House; stabilize the New Mill House; install new deck paving, waterproofing systems, and architectural and pedestrian lighting and extend the Schuylkill River Recreation Trail. (For the roof restoration, see “A New Roof Proves Its Mettle,” Traditional Building, April 2005, page 149.)

In 2006, the firm enlisted Robinson Iron of Alexander City, AL, to carry out restoration work on the architectural metalwork in the South Garden and Cliffside path. The engineers, designers, patternmakers and fabricators of this family-owned business have an impressive resume, including projects at the White House and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and Carnegie Hall in New York, NY.

Phase One, completed in June of that year, included the restoration of the railing surrounding the Cliffside path, which connects the waterworks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The railing performed an important safety function, as the path is steep, and, at one point, the drop is sheer on either side. However, after years of exposure to the elements and abuse from passersby, only a small piece of iron remained, embedded in the stone. “Cast iron is a fairly brittle metal,” says Scott Howell, vice president of Robinson Iron. “We think the material failed as a result of pressure applied by the stone footing as it expanded and contracted over the years. It gradually broke apart.”

At the entrance to the South Garden, the original fence, designed by Frederick Graff, has been re-cast. The original was removed from the garden during a period of abandonment.

The Fairmount Water Works looks north to Boathouse Row and the Fairmount Dam crossing the Schuylkill River.

In the absence of a physical guideline, the firm relied heavily on historical images to re-create the railing. From these, renderings were made of all of the component parts, and the original pattern was replicated using a three-dimensional router. Though the firm often handles projects that are larger in scale, the railing was unusually complex. “The Cliffside path railing is quite unique,” says Howell. “We tried to be as faithful as possible to the historical images, so there were a lot of curves and changes of angle. We basically form-fitted the railing to this very complex pathway.”

Robinson Iron completed the second and final phase of the restoration – the re-casting of an original fence designed by Graff’s son Frederic and the fabrication of a commemorative urn – in June of 2008. The original fence, which was erected in 1847, had been removed from the South Garden during a period of abandonment. And like the Cliffside path railing, it was complex in design. Tall intermediate posts were interspersed with pickets and bordered with Gothic tracery. At the base of the Cliffside path, an urn planted with flowers honors Ernesta Drinker Ballard, a local horticulturist and political activist and a guiding force behind the restoration campaign. Modeled on a traditional Roman urn, as shown in the Janes & Kirtland’s catalog of 1876, it bears a tribute cast in bronze to a lady described as “a civic leader, a feminist, a beloved friend.”

Upon Graff’s death in 1847, the Watering Committee commissioned the Graff Memorial in the South Garden to commemorate his 35 years of service to the Fairmount Water Works. The restored memorial is reached by the Cliffside path.
At the base of the Cliffside path, an urn planted with flowers honors the late Ernesta Drinker Ballard, who was a guiding force behind the restoration.

Rather than use cast iron for the new work, Robinson Iron opted for a ductile iron. With roughly twice the strength of normal-grade cast iron, the new material is better suited to both the grade and the exposure of the site. According to Howell, the new railing, fence and urn may see the waterwork’s tricentennial. “As long as coatings are maintained, and everything is scraped and repainted every six to eight years,” he says, “the iron should last at least 100 years.”

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