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Take a tour of the Water Works

The Fairmount Water Works was once the technological marvel of the United States.

The Water Works is instantly recognizable, with its Greek Revival architecture and spot overlooking the Schuylkill.   Credit: J. Smith for GPTMC The Water Works is instantly recognizable, with its Greek Revival architecture and spot overlooking the Schuylkill.
Credit: J. Smith for GPTMC

Christine Mifsud is in charge of one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s most popular tours — and it’s not inside the museum. Instead, Mifsud walks visitors down a sloping hill to the nearby Fairmount Water Works, a 19th-century structure that was once the technological marvel of the United States.

What is so wondrous about the Water Works?
So many things! Here we have this civil engineering landmark in the United States, but you don’t have to be a geek to love it. It’s architecturally beautiful. It’s full of our city’s history. It’s very complex on the inside, but the outside is so elegant and simple. In 1815, it was designed to look like a country house. It’s inviting to everybody.

What do you respond to most, the science or the beauty?
Every time I do a tour, the beauty and the serenity overwhelm me. But it has also given me hope for the natural environment in which I live. When [the city] damned the river in 1821, they created what’s called a fish ladder to allow migrating fish to pass through. We now have windows into that ladder at the Water Works, and we’ve seen increasing numbers of fish thrive. [About 10 years ago] an otter was seen in the ladder for the first time. Conservationists literally popped champagne!

Can you eat fish from the Schuylkill?
Yes you can. When I was growing up in the ’70s, it was downright unsafe. But the water quality has really improved since then. The water department is actually doing a great job of educating local fishermen on how much is safe to eat, as well as techniques to eliminate a lot of contaminants.

History lesson
According to the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, the site became fully operational in 1822 and was the major source for potable water in Philadelphia until 1909. It was the first municipal project of its kind in the U.S. once rivaled Niagara Falls as the top tourist destination in the country. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Water Works housed both an aquarium and a public pool. Today, visitors can check out a world-class museum and a restaurant.

‘Wondrous to Behold: The Fairmount Water Works’
Tour begins at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, west entrance
Aug. 14, 2:30 p.m.
Free after museum admission, 215-763-8100
www.philamuseum.org

 
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