The new interpretive center at the Fairmount Water Works is an example of classic Philadelphian disarray and disappointment.
Though promoted on its Web site as a demonstration of “how human activity affects our rivers and streams,” the recently renovated attraction seems more like a metaphor for the city itself: a combination of historic aesthetics and high-tech wizardry. The center tries to go every direction at once, but with just enough appeal to pull the whole mess together. It is a slightly disappointing success.
The exterior of the Water Works has remained principally unchanged from its working days as the city’s water supplier. The signature stonework that made the building as much an artistic marvel as an engineering one still remains.
Likewise, the inside has been gutted and the technology of today has replaced the technology that once brought the Water Works its fame as one of the world’s premier metropolitan water supply systems.
In the late 18th century, polluted water was mistakenly blamed for the city’s yellow fever epidemic and an ambitious plan was hatched. First, a modern water pumping system would be built to supply endless amounts of fresh Schuylkill River water to the city’s burgeoning population.
Then, in a flash of forethought, the city began buying up miles and miles of upstream riverside land to protect its crucial water supply from the coming of industrialization.
Years later, after several redesigns and retrofits to keep the system on the cutting edge, the Water Works and Fairmount Park, which evolved out of the preserved land, became international attractions and an optimal method for fulfilling a public service while maintaining the beauty of the land.
With the advent of modern water sanitation methods, the Water Works quickly became obsolete and was relegated to serving as an aquarium and, later, a recreational swimming pool. Today, this once-proud edifice sits along arguably the best skyline view of the city in the shadow of its younger and better known neighbor, the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Within the walls of the interpretive center, flashy computer-powered kiosks recite ecology facts, water conservation ideas and pollution problems. But as nice as they all look, most of the kiosks perform unimpressively, ranging from irritatingly uninformative to mundanely simple.
Still, the center has any number of noteworthy sights and activities. Several of the exhibits, though somewhat boring, offer excellent ecological tidbits. The 10-minute video documenting the Water Works’ history is worthwhile both for its artistic quality and historical value. “Pollutionopolis,” a piece of art, is whimsical and informative.
The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center is open until 5 p.m. every day except Monday. Though its brochure claims admission would be charged after Jan. 1, 2004, the center continues to be free. For more information, visit the center’s Web site at www.fairmountwaterworks.org.
Rory Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org