The Newkirk Viaduct Monument’s days as a trackside curio are over. In anticipation of the Spring 2017 opening of the Bartram’s Mile segment of the southward-expanding Schuylkill Banks, the historic, if obscure, 15-foot artifact has been delicately relocated to a more prominent—and historically accurate—location on the west bank of the Schuylkill River just below Grays Ferry Avenue. This much more conspicuous venue will remove the monument’s layers of grime and graffiti and bring it back to the place it was created to exist.
In the America of 1838, with 26 states, the railroad industry chugged past “nascent” and into “powerhouse,” as it supplanted canals for best means of moving goods and people. In Philadelphia, Matthew Newkirk oversaw the company that built the first train south out of the city, to Wilmington and Baltimore. To enable uninterrupted service from its terminal at Broad & Washington all the way to the Charm City, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad constructed the first permanent bridge over the Schuylkill River south of modern Center City, at the site of the eponymous ferry long operated by the brothers Gray.
Thomas Ustick Walter, leading architect, noted railroad monument sculptor
To commemorate the achievement of the bridge, Newkirk enlisted the architect who designed his enormous home at 13th & Arch to create a public monument. Thomas Ustick Walter made a name for himself in Philadelphia with the design of Moyamensing Prison, and then-under-construction Founders Hall at Girard College would become one of the foremost specimens of Greek Revival architecture in America. Later, as Architect of the Capitol, he designed the north and south wings of the US Capitol building, and as his magnum opus, its cast iron dome, completed in 1863. But 25 years earlier, a piece of public art at a new bridge must have seemed like a simple line item. In fact, in GroJLart’s 2012 story on the monument for Philaphilia, Bruce Laverty of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, who holds Walter’s papers, commented, “the monument cost $1,100 in 1839, $1,030 of which was paid to marble contractor Findley Highlands for ‘marble work, lettering, hauling, & setting.’ This left the architect with a whopping commission of $70.”
Nevertheless, Walter’s pedigree and the timely triumph the monument heralded laid largely forgotten on the banks of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor—the modern heir of PW&B’s 1838 route—when Brad Peniston wondered how that came to be in March 2013 here on the Daily. Through exploring the changes of the Schuylkill’s west shore and nearly two centuries of railroad evolution, and recognizing the coalescing plans for the next phase of the Schuylkill Banks, he also proposed moving the monument from the side of the tracks to Bartram’s Mile.
“This is a very important monument to West Philly, to railroads, to the Workshop of the World,” Peniston said by phone yesterday. “To have it somewhere people can actually see it and learn about what it represents made a lot of sense.”
It also made a lot of sense to Chris Dougherty*, then project manager for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (and now the same for Fairmount Park Conservancy), who circulated Peniston’s story to the partners on the project, including his peers at PPR, agents Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC), designers Andropogon, and planners/organizers PennPraxis. “Almost as soon as I sent the email (same day as the article) to the project principals alerting them to Brad P.’s proposal, there was instant consensus that it had to happen,” Dougherty says. “Everyone saw the wisdom in it. What remained was to continue connecting the dots, to keep negotiating, to keep pushing and troubleshooting when we hit snags.”
*Disclosure: Chris is also an occasional contributor to the Daily. See his archives HERE.
Andrew Goodman, then senior planner for PennPraxis, admits that he too became “zealously interested” in relocating the monument. “There was unanimous interest in starting the conversation about a potential relocation on the project team, but it was seen as an ‘add-on’ of sorts and so there was a tacit understanding that it would only be pursued as far as the funding could take it,” he remembers. After meeting with Peniston for more background, Goodman and Dougherty met with Amtrak staff, which was open to the move, even initially offering to help haul it.
How does one move a 20-ton marble monument?
Ultimately, SRDC coordinated the logistics. “SRDC was the City’s agent for the construction phase of Bartram’s Mile,” president and CEO Joe Syrnick says, “but the idea to move the monument was a group effort.” Amtrak, as de facto owner of the monument, was a critical member of that group.
“Amtrak has long been aware of the Newkirk Monument and has had periodic discussions with various parties interested in restoring and/or displaying it,” says Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz. “We are pleased to have found a partner in the Schuylkill River Development Corporation that will not only preserve this important piece of Philadelphia history, but display it in its new home where it can be more easily seen and appreciated.”
Three and a half years of planning, funding, collaboration, and coordination later, the monument has been moved—and not a moment too soon. George Young, the fifth-generation namesake of the construction company awarded the $90,000 contract, explains: “We originally thought the monument was on a concrete foundation [on the side of the tracks], but as we dug down closer, we discovered a groundhog hole that revealed that it was not on concrete, but laid on two wooden railroad ties that were deteriorated and rotting.”
The monument had thus developed a lean, ever slightly toward the tracks, so the work to relocate it, became necessary in order to prevent a possible catastrophe on the busiest railroad tracks in America. On an average weekday, the Northeast Corridor serves at least 211 trains, from Acelas whiplashing past on the center tracks to SEPTA’s Wilmington/Newark local and a crawling Airport Line approaching its spur through Eastwick. Even the smallest fractions of an inch from vibration eventually add up.
The awkward location, on a bank of soil, rail ballast and trash in the shadow of the 49th Street bridge over the Northeast Corridor, required significant work before the actual contracted work. Overgrowth and brambles were cleared, and a staging area next to the bridge with a crane and flatbed truck required two traffic police cars, creating an uncommon traffic backup on Lindbergh Boulevard on a sunny day in Southwest Philly last month.
Ideally, George Young says, you want to make as few moves as possible when relocating delicate artifacts. His team determined that the Newkirk Monument was constructed of seven parts, from the bottom of the base to the top of the obelisk, held together simply by weight, i.e. not with the reinforcement of pins. After reviewing a number of methods for moving, they chose to move it in four pieces, the lower three each weighing roughly 12,000 pounds, and the obelisk at approximately 6,000 pounds.
What’s old is new again
While putting the Newkirk Monument precisely in the place it formerly stood proved next to impossible, moving it back to the riverfront, on the western end of what will be a new bridge, is “wholly within the spirit of the history of the monument,” as Syrnick describes it. When it’s finally built, the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge connecting the Grays Ferry Crescent and Bartram’s Mile segments of the Schuylkill Banks will be the fourth crossing built at this location, after the original Newkirk Viaduct, the circa-1900 Grays Ferry Avenue bridge, its 1976 (and current) replacement, and the PW&B railroad swing bridge opened in 1902 and abandoned by Conrail in 1976 in the open position, as it currently stands.
Whether the swing bridge is incorporated into the new ped/bike bridge remains to be seen. At 114 years old—dormant for the last 40—its reliability to open and close presents a major obstacle. “Ideally, [SRDC] would like to see a new truss with modern [reliable] mechanisms, and the old swing bridge reused elsewhere, or even on land as part of the trail,” Syrnick says. But even that would present new liability challenges, he notes. The ped/bike bridge’s look will be determined by the cultural resources process currently underway involving PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the State Historic Preservation Office, and others. A decision is expected soon.
Irrespective of its appearance, the bridge factored into the siting of the Newkirk Monument. “Views of the monument were a big deal,” asserts Patty West, landscape architect for Andropogon. “We wanted the site to open up to it, to have views of it from the trail and the [new] bridge. We also wanted to ensure that it was sited to that the bridge would be in the background.”
West also stresses that the years of industry on top of the railroad factor into the look of the northern stretch of Bartram’s Mile, where the monument is situated. This becomes evident with the curves of the trail, as several “coves” from the National Heat and Power brownfield site sit back from the trail, marked by paulownia trees that will create a “spectacular purple canopy in the spring,” as described by West, as well as the extant old piers along the river and, at the belgian block trail entrance at 49th Street and Botanic Avenue, another landmark artifact in a clamshell bucket from the nearby former trash incinerator, also relocated by George Young Company.
Planning for the next 180 years
Materials Conservation (MC) has regularly teamed with George Young Company on projects of this nature: the temporary relocation of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture to Dilworth Plaza, the recent restoration of Emmanuel Frémiet’s Joan of Arc, the current reinstallation of Alexander Stirling Calder’s sculpture garden at the Presbyterian Historical Society. While some cases, like Joan of Arc, result in a good-as-new look, every case is given its own consideration.
Certainly, removal of the graffiti is paramount. Some of it has already been removed, but some of it will have to remain residually in order to preserve the monument’s details, leaving its removal to the sun’s UV rays. “We will be filling cracks and significant losses, while ensuring that the object still has the character and patina that something from 1838 should have,” MC architectural conservator Marco Federico explains. “Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to make the inscriptions more legible. Conservation frowns upon re-carving inscriptions as it can further damage the object and compromises its integrity.”
That said, conservation will begin in earnest come springtime—around the time the public should expect an invitation to come experience the newest mile of Schuylkill River Trail, a new route to Bartram’s Garden, and perhaps, a first look at a nearly 180-year-old piece of public art few modern citizens even knew existed.
“There was a resident in the home closest to the monument itself [at 49th & Paschall] who said she’d lived there for 25 years and had never noticed it,” says George Young. “I found that strangely poignant.”
Expect that sentiment to repeat itself frequently as people make their first visit to Bartram’s Mile, where new use respects old use, where the oldest botanic garden in America clashes with toxic postindustry.
“I had to catch my breath when I heard the monument was actually going to be moved to Bartram’s Mile,” says Peniston, originator of latter day Newkirk interest. “Its new location will allow the public to learn from a unique and valuable artifact from the dawn of Philadelphia’s industrial glory, and maybe to appreciate our history a bit more deeply. I am grateful to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.”
Dougherty, who arguably worked hardest, sees this as essential to reconnecting stories and spirits to the landscape. “[Bartram’s Garden curator] Joel Fry told me that William Bartram actually hated Newkirk because he wanted to build a railroad through his property. Bartram sued him eventually. Now we can tell that story and the city can stand here and visualize it.”
About the author
Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.
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