LOCAL COLOR/Back in motion
Thirty years after closing its Water Works building, Philadelphia has reopened the historic facility as an environmental education center. The 188-year-old building has been many things over the years, but city officials believe its latest incarnation has staying power and will draw both residents and tourists alike. Known as the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, the $5 million facility opened in late October.
The Water Works opened in July 1815 and used water wheels to pull water from the Schuylkill River into reservoirs for both drinking and sewage purposes. Designed by Frederick Graff, the neo-classical buildings and advanced engineering processes attracted many visitors, including such well-known people as Charles Dickens. In 1835, the unused Engine House was converted into a restaurant, and, with the growth of Fairmount Park around the site in the mid-1800s, the Water Works became a full-scale tourist attraction.
However, Philadelphia’s enormous growth during that period took its toll on the water system as the river became too polluted to be used for both drinking and sewage purposes. By 1909, the water plant had shut down. Since then, the city has struggled to devise an appropriate function for the landmark, transforming it into an aquarium and, later, a swimming facility. The building was shut down entirely in 1973, but was later named as a National Historic Monument and a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Monument.
Philadelphia officials believe that they finally have come up with the perfect role for the Water Works as an environmental education center. The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) runs the center, which took four years to construct. According to city officials, a restaurant eventually may be added in the Engine House along with other expansions.
The center’s annual operating funds and human resource personnel will come from PWD. The personnel will help a large group of volunteers run various educational programs at the center. Educating the public about the limits of water as a resource, the roles of water departments in protecting that resource and the public’s responsibility to the environment are three of the center’s main goals. Some of the interactive exhibits installed to those ends include simulated helicopter rides over the Delaware and Schuykill rivers, a display that highlights the shifts in the watershed caused by rain and a tide simulation that explains how to calculate the river’s tidal stage. Officials also have provided a classroom, a multimedia theater with a historical presentation on the Water Works, river balconies and an esplanade. More exhibits, such as an active water wheel and turbine system, currently are being developed.
Before its grand opening, the center hosted the first annual Urban Environmental Summit on Sept. 17. Officials and activists from around the country met to discuss various environmental issues, but they focused primarily on watersheds and non-point source pollution — the accumulated pollution caused by the general public that cannot be tracked to a specific source. Director Gail Tomlinson hopes the center will host many conferences and professional programs to go along with the exhibits designed for children and the general public.
“The exhibits really appeal to a range of age groups,” Tomlinson says, explaining why she believes the center, which is designed to handle approximately 100,000 people a year, will be a success. “The enthusiasm the kids have for the [exhibits] carries over to the adults.”