When Rocky ascended the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976, he assured the iconic structure’s permanent place in pop culture lure. Had the Italian Stallion attempted the feat 80 years prior, he might have drowned . . . and sullied our water supply to boot. Where the majestic Greek-revivalist building now stands at 26th & the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, overlooking Center City and providing one of our most postcard-worthy vistas, the Fairmount Reservoir once functioned as the city’s primary water supply.
The image here, provided by Workshop of the World, depicts the Fairmount Water Works complex on the east bank of the Schuylkill River in the mid-19th century. With construction beginning in 1812, the Water Works would come to be seen as an engineering marvel. Visitors from around the world came to behold its pumps, its engine-houses and its high-minded architectural concept. The Water Works pumped water into the reservoir on the adjacent hill (or fair-mount, as it were), from which it was then distributed to the city by the forces of gravity. This 1896 photo from the Philadelphia Department of Records shows a guy in an old-timey diving suit preparing to swim in our drinking water.
Another 1896 photo shows the reservoir in the years just before excessive pollution, advances in urban sewage treatment, and innovations in water filtration made the Water Works system obsolete.
The image here, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas, shows the reservoir in its last year of usage and gives you an idea of the size of its footprint. In 1911, the Water Works was officially retired, its land handed over to the mayor’s office for public use. The reservoir would be drained, with initial construction of the Art Museum beginning in 1919 and lasting a decade. Here, a 1927 photo taken from Philadelphia Speaks, shows the museum in the advanced stages of construction.
As for the Water Works, its powerhouses and peripheral corridors became the Philadelphia Aquarium. This Works Progress Administration poster from 1937 invites tourists to what was one of the first and largest permanent marine-life exhibits in the country.
Neglect and disrepair would lead to the aquarium’s closure in 1962. The Water Works had a brief third life as an indoor public swimming pool before ultimately being restored and designated a U.S. National Historical Landmark in 2004.