Two long-anticipated events have recently occurred at Fairmount Water Works marking a milestone in decades of restoration. Reproductions of two historic statues were installed in their former locations, essentially completing the exterior restoration of the site. While maintenance and ongoing conservation work will continue inside, the placement of the sculptures represents the capstone of efforts that began in the 1970s.
The Fairmount Water Works was constructed to provide the City of Philadelphia with a supply of clean, fresh water. Operations began in 1815, first with steam engines, later with breast wheels, and finally with turbines. Recognized at the time as a technological marvel, it became a symbol of vitality for both Philadelphia and the country. The landscaping and beautification of the Fairmount Water Works grounds included statuary, much of it created by America’s first major sculptor, William Rush. Rush was both a member of the Watering Committee, which would eventually become the Philadelphia Water Department. He was also a co-founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The Schuylkill River became increasingly polluted from industrial contamination throughout the 19th century and a filtration system was determined too difficult to build on the site. The once-celebrated Fairmount Water Works closed in 1909 and the Fairmount Park Aquarium opened in the buildings shortly afterward. Despite decades of popularity, the aquarium struggled for adequate funding from the City to maintain the displays and buildings. It closed in 1962. Vacant, the site became marred by arson and graffiti.
By the 1970s, all of the original sculptures had either disappeared, been placed in storage, or loaned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for preservation and display. Fearing the loss of such an important historic site, local foundations, private individuals, and several non-profits began to raise money in the 1970s for the Water Works restoration and reuse. During the last four decades, some statues had been replaced. Fiberglass reproductions of wood originals by William Rush, for example, were placed on top of the entrance portals to the Old Mill House. A carved eagle, missing for years from the Eagle Pavilion at the eastern end of the Fairmount Dam, was recreated in bronze and reinstalled.
The center of the South Garden’s Central Marble Fountain has been empty since 1937. In December 2017, the Philadelphia Department Parks and Recreation installed a bronze reproduction of Allegory of the Schuylkill River (sometimes called Nymph and Bittern). The depiction of a woman holding a bittern, a type of water fowl, on her shoulder was placed in the fountain where the original had stood.
In late January, a replica of the sculpture Mercury was placed atop the roof of the Mercury Pavilion on the cliff above the Fairmount Water Works buildings. The pavilion had been without its eponymous sculpture since sometime around 1880.
The project was initiated by Dodge Thompson. Now with the National Gallery of Art, Thompson studied the Rush sculptures while working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago. The statues themselves were produced by a conservation team led by husband and wife Shane and Julia Stratton, owners of Stratton Sculpture Studios located in Frankford. Fittingly, the conservation couple got their start at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the institution which William Rush helped to found in 1805. Two staff members from the PMA, Sally Malenka, Senior Decorative Art and Sculpture Conservator, and Kathy Foster, Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center for American Art, were instrumental in assisting the Strattons in working with the original Rush pieces housed at the PMA and advised the team throughout the reproduction process.
The bronze reproduction of the roughly life-size Allegory of the Schuylkill River was created using the lost wax method. This involved making a cast using the original statue. The team used silicon bronze, which is harder, stronger, less porous, and more resistant to corrosion than the lead bronze of the original. It can also be welded. Where the original was created in two pieces and riveted together, the reproduction was created in one piece. Like the original, a nozzle has been fitted within the bird’s bill so that a jet of water shoots up and cascades down around the statue. It has also been given a green patina, created by applying copper nitrate to the bronze surface, so it has an aged appearance right away. The sculpture weighs 475 pounds.
The remaking of Allegory of the Schuylkill River, top, and Mercury, bottom. All images courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The original wood sculpture, Mercury, was carved in 1829. It was so fragile that making a direct cast would have been too risky, according to Shane. Instead, the team used a method not available to either William Rush or Robert Wood & Company, the foundry which cast the first bronze Allegory of the Schuylkill River in 1872. The conservation team digitally scanned the original and created a foam reproduction by milling numerous flats using a computer-controlled die tool. After assembling and gluing the flats to a core, they hand-blended the sections. They then made a cast of the foam reproduction and used the mold to create a final replica in marine-quality resin, approximately a quarter-inch thick. To finish it off, the statue was painted white using a durable, industrial-grade paint. Approximately two-thirds life-size, the reproduction weighs about 40 pounds, slightly less than the wood original.
Lucy Strackhouse, Senior Director of Preservation and Project Management at the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said the project to fabricate and install the Mercury and Allegory of the Schuylkill River (Nymph and Bittern) sculptures was made possible through a generous grant from the William B. Dietrich Foundation.
According to Shane and Julia Stratton, reproducing the deep relief into which Rush carved the drapery of Allegory’s skirt, with its elegant lines and large amount of folded surface area, was taxing, as was the area between her head and the body of the bird, with its inclusions and openings.
The conservators said the most challenging aspect of recreating Mercury stemmed from the sculpture’s missing parts. The original’s feet have been missing as long as there has been reliable documentation. The sculpture is also missing a cape and a caduceus (a type of staff), as well as parts of the wings on its helmet. As heavily photographed as the Fairmount Water Works historically was, there aren’t any images that clearly show Mercury whole and in situ. According to Shane Stratton, the team used artistic judgment to recreate the helmet wings. They used Shane’s own feet as models for recreating the statue’s feet. The team chose not to recreate the cape and caduceus, however, because there is no documentation as to their form nor is there any indication on the statue that suggests what they should be like.
Both reproductions have now been installed in their original locations. Mercury stands above the cliff and catches the sun with a glossy white finish. In his right hand the sculpture holds up a purse for carrying messages. Visitors will be forgiven if they think the sculpture looks like it’s taking a selfie.
Allegory of the Schuylkill River has a pleasing green patina, a little darker than the Statue of Liberty. From the beginning, the sculpture was meant to be a fountain, so William Rush realistically depicted a figure of a lithe woman with a wet and clinging drape. When the white-painted wood original was installed in the Centre Square Water Works in 1809 it turned heads and caused quite a frisson. Surrounded by multiple vertical streams of water, the sculpture in the South Garden once again commands center stage.