You are here

Fairmount Water Works

-A A +A
1811–1815, 1819–1822, 1834, Frederick Graff; 1860–1862 mill house, Henry P. M. Birkinbine; 1867–1872, Frederick Graff Jr. Kelly Dr. near Fairmount Ave. on Schuylkill River, Fairmount Park
  • Fairmount Water Works (Richard Guy Wilson)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Frederick Graff learned engineering and design in the office of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, after whose departure from Philadelphia he supervised the replacement of Latrobe's steam-powered waterworks at Centre Square, a technological marvel but an engineering fiasco. Steam power was also used at Fairmount Water Works to pump water to an immense reservoir where the Art Museum now stands, but the steam engines twice exploded, leading to the switch to the more dependable and economical water-powered pumps engineered by Graff. In 1811, Graff designed the Georgian-proportioned but severely detailed Steam Engine house based on Latrobe's teaching, and eight years later built the immense stone mill house facing the river with its Greek Revival pavilions. This formed part of the conversion to water-powered pumps.

In 1835, with the shift to water-powered turbines, the steam engine house was converted into a restaurant and beer garden that made the site one of the first man-made tourist attractions. On his 1842 tour through the United States, Charles Dickens reported that “the Water-Works, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden. The river is dammed at this point and forced by its own power into reservoirs, whence the whole city is supplied ... at a very trifling expense.” The later Italianate buildings were part of the conversion of the complex to water-powered turbines that were the work of Frederick Graff Jr. In 1863, the Engine House received its first remodeling by James C. Sidney to serve as a restaurant. The city continued to rely on the unfiltered Schuylkill water, however, over the objections of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Hygiene. After the great national epidemic of cholera in 1892, the waterworks were eventually closed and converted into an aquarium, until damaged by flooding in 1962. The recent restoration as a restaurant has been led by Mark B. Thompson Associates.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas


What's Nearby


George E. Thomas, "Fairmount Water Works", [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 117-119.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.