In a quirky burst of engineering, aesthetics and memory in the middle of the 19th-century, Philadelphia built itself a great, 130-foot spiral column. The idea was complicated and ambitious: provide water pressure for the emerging neighborhood of Mantua with a standpipe wrapped in an ornate, circular staircase topped off with a 17-foot wide public viewing platform and, above that, a 16-foot statue of George Washington. Everything would be custom engineered, locally-manufactured, and, except for the base, in cast iron.
Engineers Henry P.M. Birkinbine and Edward H. Trotter drove the scenario that saw the “fairy like” Gothic structure to completion. “Eight cluster columns opposite each angle of the stone base support…a railing of Gothic scrollwork,” read one official report. “The upper platform, surrounded by a Gothic railing, is sustained by ornamental brackets springing from the columns; these are continued above the platform, where, by flying buttresses, they are connected together, and to the standpipe, which is surmounted by a spire and a flag staff, the whole of iron except the base.” In the Fall of 1854, the 8-foot Gothic doorway at ground level was thrown open for the public to venture up the 172 narrow steps, following “the continuous Gothic scroll railing” and enjoy the spectacular view of the growing city.
By then, the Washington statue had fallen by the wayside.
The Father of His Country was being taken care of elsewhere. Philadelphia long had its wooden Washington at Independence Hall, carved by William Rush in 1815. Baltimore installed its statue-capped column in 1829. Congress commissioned Horatio Greenough to sculpt a 12-ton, white marble, bare-chested emperor, installed at the Capitol rotunda in 1841. Washington, D.C. also had its long-in-progress Washington Monument, which had declared bankruptcy the year Philadelphia built its standpipe. (The national monument wouldn’t be completed until 1888.) All of these were done, more than less, in the classical style, with classical materials. Philadelphia’s standpipe had its models in ancient Rome’s venerable columns for Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, monuments with spiral stone steps on the inside and spiral stone friezes on the outside. But something in addition to the Classical Revival was in play here.
Philadelphians of the mid-19th century recognized technology and expansion afforded an unprecedented opportunity to leap beyond Old World models and explore up-to-date materials—and ways to deploy them for grand effect. Above its 35-foot stone pedestal, the standpipe reached new heights utilizing “modern” cast iron. Here, expressed in honest and contemporary forms soon to become part of everyday life, was evidence of Philadelphia’s burgeoning engineering culture.
By the 1850s, Philadelphia’s engineers had come to appreciate “excellence of material, solidity, an admirable fitting of the joints, a just proportion and arrangement of the parts, and a certain thoroughness and genuineness.” These are the qualities, wrote Edwin T. Freedley, “that pervaded the machine work executed in Philadelphia, and distinguished it from all other American-made machinery.” But in the standpipe we see more than pure engineering, we see an engineering aesthetic spilling over into the mainstream.
Sure, the London-published Civil Engineer & Architect’s Journal profiled the standpipe. But so did Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, a popular national magazine of the day, whose editors presented an illustrated feature in the Spring of 1853. “When completed,” they promised, “the structure will form one of the most notable curiosities… an object of much scientific interest.” For both engineers and the general public.
It would take a few more decades before this sort of thinking would collide with the imagination of an architectural genius. As we noted previously, Frank Furness grabbed ahold of Philadelphia’s “industrial repertoire” and conducted daring feats of “structural panache.” A glance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Fine Arts Library of 1890 confirms what Philadelphia’s leaders, engineers in body and in spirit, had come to relish in the world they manufactured.
That world, history constantly reminds us, was very much an everchanging one. Meant to be a stand-in, the standpipe became obsolete after a reservoir that took more funds and time, came online in another 15 years. (See the nearby Belmont Pumping Station.) The standpipe sat abandoned until the early 1880s, until, in yet another display of derring-do, engineers moved it in a single piece to the opposite side of the Schuylkill River, to the Spring Garden Water Works. There, too, permanence proved fleeting and fickle. Philadelphia’s spiral column, its monument to industry, innovation (and, yes) history, was last seen somewhere at the end of the 19th century. Its ultimate demise came without fanfare.
Meanwhile, in Rome, the standpipe’s ancient progenitors remain standing—two millennia and counting.