Gods of Water


Swann Memorial Fountain | Photo: Peter Woodall

Perhaps lost in the coming spectacle of the Barnes on Parkway: the rather stunning reemergence of fountains as objects of wonder in the public landscape, particularly along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Has any city sought such delight (and the affirmation of engineering) in reflecting pools, jets, mist, tumbling water, and spray since the creation of the gardens of Babylon in the first or second century BCE?

This week will see the opening of three new water elements on the Parkway–the Wissahickon-inspired naturalistic waterfall and children’s pond at Sister Cities Plaza, a fountain on the south end of the plaza representing Philadelphia in relation to its various sister cities, and the reflecting pool at the main entrance garden of the Barnes–and the reemergence of the neo-classical fountain and pool at the newly refurbished patio of the Rodin. These fountains will be joined by sculptor Janet Echelman’s sculptural fountain and ice skating rink at Dilworth Plaza.

Photo: Peter Woodall

Thus, a walker–perhaps a swimmer!–heading from City Hall to the Water Works will encounter this new Dilworth Plaza water sculpture, the masculine jet of Love Park (notwithstanding the planned renovation of that space), the fountain and waterfall/pond at Sister Cities, the Swann Memorial Fountain with its metaphoric embrace of the city’s three main waterways, the reflecting pools of the Barnes and the Rodin, sculptor Rudolph Siemering’s Washington Monument with its cascade fountain, the two neo-classical fountains on either side (in honor of civic visionary Eli Kirk Price and Swedish captain John Ericsson), the fountain at the center of the piazza at the top of the Art Museum steps, and two refurbished fountains in the cliffside garden next to the Water Works.

Landscape architect Bryan Hanes, designer of much of this restored landscape, reminded me that the tumbling fountains that straddle the Art Museum steps have been off for several years (he is trying to find out why). Likewise, the lovely Fountain of the Seahorses (a gift of the Italian government to Philadelphia in honor of the Sesquicentennial of America) below the west entrance to the Museum, has been out of commission for a few years (it now appears to be under renovation).

All told, that’s 15 fountains for our pleasure in about 15 blocks, a veritable romance of the urban idyl spilling out from the center of the city to the lissome shore of our most seductive river.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. Thats excellent to hear! I am really excited to see more interest being generated in these fountains. I myself have often wondered why the fountains along side the art museum stairs are not running, its a shame since they could really change the whole mood of that area.

  2. Fifteen fountains and pools are very well and good for your viewing pleasure ONLY.
    As I’ve found out the hard way, many strictly prohibit human indulgence
    on even the steamiest Philly summer days. In the 95 degree heat, can’t we get a break?

  3. Love to see the water-falls on either side of the Art Museum stairs turned on again. I know kids like them in the summer-time, but so what. Maybe the city needs a water-park and a skate-park).

  4. I don’t think the fountains along the art museum steps have functioned in the almost 10 years I’ve been here. I would LOVE to know why, and how much it would cost to fix. Seems like a great fundraising campaign to restore the fountains.

  5. I think there was a lot of talk about the art museum fountains being too deep and a liability. That said, if that is the issue, they could be redesigned where smaller fountains are surrounded by landscaped areas within the original fountain footprint. I would really like to see the two fountains on Kelly Drive redfurbished too. Perhaps a corporate sponsor such as Comcast will be willing to adopt the fountains.

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