A new grant is helping the City connect residents to historic and modern water infrastructure investments while making the Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard a “true civic commons.”
A new grant is helping the City connect residents to historic and modern water infrastructure investments while making the Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard a “true civic commons.”

As a work of spectacular architecture and artistry, a National Historic Landmark and holder of several world records, Philadelphia’s ornate and iconic City Hall is a place that dominates the center of our city—spiritually, culturally, and, yes, geographically.

And while the most astute students of Philly lore might be able to cite William Penn statue stats (37 feet tall, 27 tons of bronze, biggest atop any building in the world) far fewer know about the site’s remarkable geological status or its pre-City Hall history as it relates to science, infrastructure and water.

A new project seeks to honor that distinction by breathing fresh life into the building’s expansive courtyard, and the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia is calling on “experienced local artisans, architects, designers, and makers” to design and build an outdoor feature that, among other things, will serve as a platform for programming and activities.

Those interested must submit the requested information by 5 p.m. on January 13. More here.

As detailed in an announcement posted to the Mayor’s Fund website, the goal is to create an installation that supports a creative “placemaking” project currently being organized by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the Department of Public Property and the Mayor’s Fund.

Largely funded through a Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grant, the City Hall Courtyard revamp involves a series of short-term improvements designed to make the space “more inviting, dynamic, and people-friendly in 2017.”

The project will also highlight the site’s standing as the exact spot where the Schuylkill and Delaware River watersheds split—meaning that rain falling on the east side of City Hall flows into the Delaware River, and rain falling on the west side flows into the Schuylkill River.

Early Philadelphia planners, attracted to the idea of having fresh drinking water pumped from the center of the city outward, chose the site when building the Centre Square Water Works in 1799. As Philadelphia’s first major attempt at providing clean water for residents, the Centre Square project represented an important model that helped create a more effective Fairmount Water Works in the following years.

The Centre Square Water Works, on the grounds of today’s City Hall, in 1800. Plate image courtesy of the Independence Hall Association at ushistory.org/
The Centre Square Water Works, on the grounds of today’s City Hall, in 1800. Image courtesy of the Independence Hall Association at UShistory.org

A 1957 article exploring the history of Philadelphia water infrastructure notes that Centre Square Water Works engineer Benjamin Latrobe designed the building in a way that respected the space’s status as central meeting place for the community:

Keeping in mind that Latrobe was a successful architect as well as an eminent engineer, it is easy to understand why the building was beautifully designed, in harmony with the best architecture of the time. White marble was used for the exterior, and in its setting in the center of the public square or park surrounded by attractive shrubbery and trees, it had the appearance of a memorial edifice. This Centre Square, from which the station takes its name, was the gathering place of the people for public, municipal, social, and patriotic functions, and adorned by the building it became a place of beauty as well as one of usefulness.

In addition to highlighting those historical ties to Philadelphia’s water infrastructure, the Heart of the Community placemaking project will invite courtyard visitors to explore a modern day innovation in infrastructure: the City’s 25-year Green City, Clean Waters program.

Launched by PWD in 2011, the groundbreaking program represents a new way of protecting local waterways from stormwater runoff pollution and overflows that can result when sewers are overwhelmed during rain and snowstorms.

Rather than focusing solely on expanding sewers and building massive subterranean tunnels to hold excess stormwater, the City is creating new green spaces and surfaces that soak up water to reduce runoff and overflows.

This approach results in infrastructure that is a far more visible and impactful part of Philadelphia neighborhoods: businesses are transforming unused asphalt lots into landscaped rain gardens; once un-shaded streets are being lined with trees that soak up stormwater; Parks and Recreation facilities are getting much-needed upgrades that include rain-absorbing surfaces and plant-filled green tools.

With the City Hall Courtyard project, the team driving the process hopes to convey the scope of Green City, Clean Waters investments in the program’s first five years—hundreds of public and private green tools around the city now work to keep an estimated 1.5 billion gallons of polluted water out of our rivers and creeks annually—and to paint a picture of what Philadelphia could look like as this green infrastructure network grows tenfold over the next two decades.

The current Request for Qualifications (RFQ) released by the Mayor’s Fund relates to a part of the project calling for “the design and fabrication of a modular, multi-purpose outdoor furniture element to be used in City Hall Courtyard, beginning in June 2017.”

According to the RFQ, the feature being created for the courtyard should also be “designed for outdoor use to support current and new programs and activities, last for a minimum of two years, and call attention to the historic relationship the site of City Hall has to water in Philadelphia.”

More from the Mayor’s Fund announcement:

This RFQ is the first of a two-phase process to select a team to design and fabricate the platform. The second phase will be a request for proposals (RFP) from a small number of teams (three to five) selected from the pool of those who submitted qualifications. The RFP phase will immediately follow the RFQ phase, and will include a nominal stipend for the teams asked to submit proposals.

The goal of all this? To elevate the City Hall Courtyard as a “truly engaging civic commons that celebrates the City’s rich history and sustainable future.”

If you think you have what it takes—or know someone who does—to help make that happen, head over to the Mayor’s Fund site and check out the full RFQ.

As the project moves forward, we’ll post important dates as well as they are finalized here on the Watersheds Blog and share any announcements about more opportunities to get involved.