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City of Philadelphia

Fairmount Park Origins

Public space was at the core of Philadelphia’s original city plan as envisioned by William Penn and Chief Surveyor Thomas Holme in their Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America, published in 1683. 

According to Holme, the intent of the original five squares: Rittenhouse (SW), Logan (NW), Franklin (NE), Washington (SE) and Penn (Center), were to be shared, common spaces. Essentially, these spaces were planned as part of Penn’s “Greene Countrie Towne,” the new type of city the founder envisioned which would include public open space. In practice, however, Penn’s vision for the original squares, representing a new type of urban open space plan, albeit on a small scale, would not be implemented for over a century. Instead, these spaces were used as grazing grounds for cattle, trash dumps, burial grounds and for public hangings.

Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s spurred City Council to seek a system to provide safe drinking water to the citizens of the city. In 1801, water works were built on the original Center Square, current site of City Hall. In 1815 the Center Square Water Works were replaced by the Fairmount Water Works and its reservoir atop Faire Mount (the current site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The South Garden of the Fairmount Water Works, designed in 1829, is one of the earliest formalized public gardens in the United States and is the oldest section of Fairmount Park.

The Consolidation Act of 1854 granted the newly enlarged Philadelphia City and County the power to acquire areas within the city as open public space. With the new power invested in the City government, the Lemon Hill estate, originally acquired in 1844 to protect the water supply north of the Fairmount Water Works, officially was dedicated as a public park and renamed Fairmount Park.

The size of Fairmount Park grew immensely after the Pennsylvania State legislature passed Acts of Assembly in 1867 and 1868, enlarging the park’s boundaries and creating the Fairmount Park Commission. These large acquisitions included the remaining portion of East Fairmount Park as well as West Fairmount Park and Wissahickon Valley Park, which enlarged Fairmount Park to roughly 2,800 acres.