Beauty and Utility: Philadelphia's Waterworks

Providing a constant supply of clean water to city residents became a recognized duty of city government in Philadelphia in the late-18th century and continued to be an issue that civic leaders wrestled with throughout the 19th century as the city grew in population and geographic size. Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Philadelphia Waterworks, which began operations in early 1801, soon proved inadequate for the city’s needs and was replaced in 1815 by the Fairmount Waterworks along the Schuylkill River. The Fairmount Waterworks, in turn, underwent many expansions and improvements during its almost one hundred years as a pumping station. The technological innovations that allowed the waterworks to provide clean water to residents also attracted the curious, who marveled at the machinery and its power.

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Plan showing a circle bisected with straight lines located within a square. Manuscript notes identify significant features

Frederick Graff. [Plan of Centre Square], ca. 1800, with additions to 1827. Pen-and-ink, graphite, and watercolor on paper. Acquired from the Jay T. Snider Collection.


In 1805 Frederick Graff (1774-1847) became superintendent of the Philadelphia Waterworks, a project on which he had been assisting Benjamin Latrobe for a number of years. He later became chief engineer of Philadelphia’s Water Department and was instrumental in the design and construction of Fairmount Waterworks. In this drawing, Graff has carefully delineated the area around Latrobe’s Centre Square engine house, the site now occupied by City Hall, indicating, for example, the length and width of walkways within the square and those leading to the square. More interesting, he also made note of the social use of the space, recording the location of nearby businesses, including a gambling house, a marble yard, and a pleasure garden, and he even specified the site of the discovery of a murder victim’s body. The last addition to the drawing refers to the demolition of the waterworks in 1827.

River view seen through porch columns showing busy covered bridge, canal boat, and buildings on opposite river bank at base of mound. Men and women on porch in foreground

John Rubens Smith.[A View of Fairmount and the Water-Works. Taken from the Veranda of Harding’s Hotel, Schuylkill], ca. 1837.Watercolor, pencil and gouache on paper. Acquired from the Jay T. Snider Collection.


A British-born and trained painter and printer, John Rubens Smith (1775-1849) immigrated to the United States around 1809 and circulated between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. During his travels around the eastern United States he sketched monuments, important buildings, mills, and city and town views filled with businesses, pedestrians, and vehicles. In this watercolor, which served as the basis for a lithograph published by John T. Bowen in 1838, Smith captures the scenic beauty of the Schuylkill River, as well as a sense of liveliness and excitement. By framing the waterworks and gardens within the hotel’s porch columns, he chose an interesting perspective in which to present a familiar view. The waterworks are almost secondary to the Upper Ferry Bridge, a landmark which was destroyed by fire in 1838.

cCircular dome rises up from classical-style columned building situated in a grassy area. Smoke puff emerges from dome. Pedestrians promenade around building

William Birch. Water-Works in Centre Square. Plate 28 in The City of Philadelphia…as is appeared in 1800. (Philadelphia, 1800). Engraving.


The Centre Square Waterworks, despite the billowing smoke in this engraving, was still a few weeks away from becoming fully operational when William Birch published his views of Philadelphia on December 31, 1800. Designed by architect and civil engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), the waterworks building attractively hid a utilitarian operation but was problematic from its inception, costing a third more than Latrobe’s original $150,000 estimate and barely containing within its walls the steam engine and pumping equipment. Latrobe’s beautiful neo-classical building nonetheless served as a welcome addition to Philadelphia’s architectural landscape, and Centre Square attracted numerous pleasure seekers for a stroll on its grounds.

Stone wall separates canal from river. Multiple structures including tower stand along mound at water's edge

James McClees. [Schuylkill Navigation Co. canal and Fairmount Water Works in the distance], 1855. Albumen print. Bequest of John A. McAllister.


James McClees (1821-1887) produced some of the earliest paper photographic views of Philadelphia between 1853 and 1859. Fairmount Waterworks was important enough to merit inclusion in McClees’s photographic survey along with views of churches, businesses, and the residences of leading citizens. With the construction of a dam across the Schuylkill in the early 1820s, the Fairmount Waterworks, under Frederick Graff’s supervision, was converted from steam to waterpower and became a prototype of a successful urban water supply system.

Two women, including one holding an opened parasol, and a man sit on bench near a classical temple-style structure

R. Newell & Sons. View of Fairmount Waterworks (Philadelphia, 1876.) Albumen print stereograph. Gift of Jane Carson James.


Men and women enjoying a sunny day stop to rest on the terrace of the second mill house of the Waterworks, which was completed in 1862. Improvements and alterations to the Fairmount Waterworks were frequently undertaken until the early 1870s, first by its original designer Frederick Graff  and later by his son Frederick Graff, Jr. (1817-1890) and Henry P.M. Birkinbine, both Philadelphia engineers.