Thursday, September 28, 2006

Seeing the Waterworks Garden the Way Charles Dickens and Mark Twain Did

After many years of effort and unfortunate reversals, the restoration of Fairmount Park's historic South Garden is nearing completion.

This terraced landscape on the west side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, overlooking the Schuylkill River and its gushing dam, has been one of Philadelphia's most romantic strolling spots in since it opened in 1835. The South Garden was originally seen as a way to clean up a quarry next to the Waterworks Engine House and make the area presentable. But it quickly became a popular place for Philadelphia's growing middle class to spend their leisure time. In fact, some claim it was the first purpose-built park in America and an inspiration for setting aside the rest of Fairmount Park's 6,000-odd acres. Although the rocky cliffs and meandering paths look as if they formed naturally, they are very much the work of the garden's creators, people like the Graffs, the father and son who ran the Waterworks. The designers moved huge boulders and vast amount of dirt to sculpt the romantic riverside grotto.

Claire Donato, who has been the lead architect on the project for Mark B. Thompson Associates, says the work on the garden and the cliff paths is now in its final stages, although workers still need a few more months to complete repairs to the circular fountain, as well as the northern and southern portions of the cliff paths. From what I've seen, the place probably looks as good as it did when Charles Dickens dropped by in 1840 and proclaimed the complex "no less ornamental than useful." The South Garden was not only Philadelphia's first natural park, it was one of its earliest tourist attractions. Mark Twain was drawn there in 1853 and wrote an enthusiastic letter to his brother in Hannibal, Mo. Twain was particularly impressed by the fountain: "I must say it is one of the prettiest fountains I have seen lately. A nice half-inch jet of water is thrown straight up, 10-12 feet, and descends in a shower." Unfortunately, generations Philadelphians know the garden only as a place where you had to watch for falling rocks and the shady characters hiding in the heavy thickets.

That's all changed since the repair of the Waterworks complex, the recent opening of the Michael Karloutsos' new restaurant and lounge and the opening of the Schuylkill Banks extension of the Kelly Drive waterfront path.

Incidentally, an extension of the path to the South Street Bridge is picking up momentum. Joe Syrnick, president of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., told me that he is ready to hire a designer for the 2,000-foot addition, which will require a boardwalk over the water because there is so little available land. That path will connect by ramp to a rebuilt South Street Bridge. After years of promise, the word is that PennDot will seek construction bids in early 2007 for the two-year project. Progress is slowly meandering its way down river.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The boardwalk idea sounds great! I was wondering when/how they were going to extend the banks path further south like the master plan called for.

Do you know what is being built just north of the Waterworks complex? I know they are having parking problems, I am just praying that they aren't planning on paving that rolling hill that surrounds the current cicular parking section.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For all interested inthe schuylkill river trail extension:

Inga, where did you hear that they were putting th bridge out to bid? I haven't heard that anywhere else.
You really never answer questions posted here but if anyone else knows, please share the info...

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it didn't post properly, here is the full address, you will have to cut and paste it as one line.

7:45 AM  
Blogger bobgantor said...

I was there the one day that teh fountain was on, I'm guessing for a fund raiser and I have to say, it was THRILLING! I have lived here all my life and felt transported to another place and time.
it's quite beautiful and I can't wait for spring!
As for the River park, and the extension...can't wait! took the riverferry tour and I HIGHLY recommend it...
it's amazing to see projects that ahve been talked about for decades finally coming true.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great idea. They did something similar in Portland, OR.

11:47 AM  

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