“Local Color and Urban Grit”: Tagging the Rusticated Piers of the Henry Ave. Bridge

“Graffiti exists along nearly every inch of space that is reachable from the trail winding along the hillside of the lower Wissahickon Valley, providing only obvious visible distinction between the bridge today and its original appearance, while adding a splash of local color and urban grit to the tranquil setting.” —[Historic American Engineering Record, Henry Avenue Bridge / Wissahickon Memorial Bridge]

“Weird as a wizard”: Notes from Kelpius’s Cave


For Nick Bucci rationality has its limits. Far from a sleight, this is an adequate description of his epistomological way. “Are you interested in the magic?” he asked me last week at the Tercentennial of the settlement of the 17th century mystic and Pietist botanist, astronomer, poet, agriculturalist, and sometime composer, Johannes Kelpius. Bucci, a polymath himself, approaches the human, natural and supernatural occurrences in these steep shady declivities of the Wissahickon with the kind of holistic, analytical mode that would would have endeared him to Kelpius’s band. A woodworker and stonemason who restores old homes, Bucci sees no artificial division between the watershed’s past inhabitants and the seekers of today. The magic, or holiness, preceded Kelpius — but evidence of its presence is still plainly visible — or sensible.

In his rambles through the Park, Bucci has witnessed the magic. He has noted the appearance of large well-built cairns of rock at various locations. “This isn’t a bunch of kids drinking root beer and looking at nudy mags,” he says. Asked if he’s looked into locating the alchemy stone Kelpius reputedly threw into the confluence of the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon, Bucci told us he knew a guy with underwater detection gear. And that was only half of it. While some know that when the box containing the stone slipped beneath and lightning rent the sky and thunder pealed for hours — very few know that Kelpius was also given the staff of the band’s first founder. This, too, remains to be found.


Other members of the Kelpius Society of Philadelphia, a fiesty band of Kelpius enthusiasts dedicated to the investigation of the man and his short-lived commune, want to solidify the sacred link between the place and the memory of the Community. For architect and vice president of the society’s site reclamation committee, Alvin Holm, their very choice to situate the community in a glen some five miles outside the New World city of Philadelphia was freighted with symbolism. Reading scripture with immense trust and deference, Kelpius and his followers were captivated by the Biblical Philadelphia: that blameless city spared by God in the Book of Revelation.

As a Pietist band, they wanted to escape the supposed decadence of Lutheranism and create a community dedicated to the improvement of the individual Christian. But despite their presumption of human perfectibility, Kelpius and his band were pessimistic about the continued existence of a savage world. Kelpius, an academic from Transylvania who received a doctorate in philosophy at the age of 16, became obsessed with preparing for the eschaton. Learned in astronomy, botany, mathematics, and the rites of Rosicrucianism, Kelpius believed the natural world revealed and reinforced the essential truths of scripture. Thus, he had constructed a forty foot ark along the fortieth parallel to bring scripture and natural truth into better correspondence. While most of Europe began detaching the mechanics of the natural world from the received truths of religion and tradition, Kelpius and the German mystics like Jakob Bohme and Johann Jacob Zimmerman, (first leader of Kelpius’s band) used modern science to confirm their devotion and better understand God’s disposition toward mankind.


For Kelpius and his band, operating within a heady matrix of signs, symbols, spirit, and scripture, the world was constantly revealing the way of Christian rectitude. By positioning yourself properly within nature, one could find God’s favor. Far from strict Lutheranism which branded them heretical, Kelpius and his band could adopt a more liberal approach to truth in the wilds of Pennsylvania. According to Holm, with their knowledge of astronomy and their toleration of pagan worship, Kelpius and his community immediately paid honor to the summer solstice on the “fire hill” at Faire mount upon arriving in 1694. Though the dour Quakers probably shunned the roguish spectacle, Holm argues that the Swedes — with their rich rural tradition — probably performed a syncretic solstice festival, borrowing heavily from the Lenape. It was not unknown to Kelpius and his followers that approximately six months from the summer solstice, Jesus was reported to have been born.

Architect Alvin Holm wants physically represent Kelpius’s preoccupation with seeing typologies of scripture in nature. As head of the site reclamation committee, Holm looks to restore the communal complex, at the center of which will be the True North plinth. Every summer, the faithful will gather around the plinth and by marking the sun’s shadow 20 minutes before and after the summer solstice, they will know true north.



As the ceremony on the fire hill waned, Kelpius and his some 40 followers probably made their way up the Ridge Road or by the Schuylkill and Wissahickon to an area between two toes of land on the west side of the Wissahickon, now just south of the Henry Ave. Bridge. The commune’s dwellings were spatially segregated according to function — communal and utilitarian buildings were placed on the ridge of the hill while individual caves for personal reflection spread all along the small horseshoe-shaped depression. While the community attempted to establish crops, orchards, and gardens in the schisty soil on the ridge, followers met in the main church or meetinghouse to share in song or, perhaps, hear Kelpius speak on his soul’s transcendence after death, or the immanent destruction of the sinful world. While little remains of the original site, Kelpius’s passionate and moving songs do remain. Some like I Love My Jesus Quite Alone reveal the mystic’s reliance on the symbolism of astronomy — “The magnet needle erring goes / When from, when from the pole distracted,” while others personify the soul’s seeking of God as a lusty, romantic pursuit.

After showing us tables filled with herb jars, “potions,” Catholic religious figures, 18th century woodworking implements and replicas of weapons used in the battle of Germantown, Nick, Alvin, some Society members descended the steep hill off Hermit Lane. Nick had thoughtfully brought rope, though none of our party needed it. Nick is down near the cave often, cleaning the marker of its near-perpetual patina of graffiti. Arriving at the marker, one is overwhelmed with the sheer implausibility that this is it. It looks like a 20th century structure, maybe a springhouse converted into the shrine. Incredulous, I ask Holm if this is the real cave. Coming into the blackness, Holm looks distractedly, almost annoyedly, up the hill to our right. “This is where The Cave is. It’s probably up the hill.” In this world where Kelpius practiced “Weird as a wizard, over arts forbid” where seen and unseen so happily coexist, Holm’s answer seemed appropriate.

Schuylkill Expressway Palimpsest

These are Fairmount Park WPA-era maps altered by Park engineers in the mid-1950s to show the prospective course of the Schuylkill Expressway through Park lands. If you look below the whitewash you can see springs, monuments, and whole watersheds soon covered by bands of steel and concrete. This is near the Montgomery Ave. exit south of the Horticultural Center.

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Watering of a City (Part II): Defunct George’s Hill (24th Ward) Reservoir

For much of its history, Pennsylvania has been a practical place. Its land and cities places of productive industrial activity. Yet in either urban or rural contexts, the dogged drive to release stores of energy, to accumulate capital, and secure raw materials has gravely threatened public health. Whether to prioritize the rights of capital over public health is one of the quandaries municipal governments faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most cities, lacking progressive rationale for improvements in public health, accepted seasonal epidemics only until they threatened the peace and stability of a capitalist order.

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Tom Joad and The Cliffs

“Study the hangings, the floors, the pictures, the lighting fixtures, the furniture and the accessory objects. Master them as a series of developments in taste and style. Master them, and you are then qualified to go anywhere and say with much assurance about when a house was built or when a piece of furniture was made.”-John B. Kelly, President, Fairmount Park Commission, 1932 in The Chain of Colonial Houses

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Lemon Hill Viewshed Restoration


The Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust is currently removing nearly a century of overgrown vegetation on the south side of Lemon Hill with the intent of making visible from Kelly Drive Henry Pratt’s Georgian mansion: around which were planted the citrus fruits that gave the hill its name.


Officially, the project is termed a “viewshed” restoration; it’s an attempt to restore the look of the hill to roughly its state in the mid to late 19th century and also to allow those on the hill a clear view of the Schuylkill.  Usually, preservationists working with landscape crews use historic images to pinpoint overgrown areas and remove shrubs, small trees, and undergrowth around important cultural features.  In the Lemon Hill project, two factors prevent preservationist from restoring the hill’s landscaping to before roughly 1870.  Images of the hill prior to 1870 tend to be woodcuts, lithographs, oil paintings, and watercolors of various quality.  Most are extremely stylized and amateurish with perspective and scale fluctuating wildly.  These are helpful in a general sense and give an impression of clearings on the hill.  After 1875, thanks to commercial photographer James Cremer, the photographic record of nearly all of Fairmount Park substantially improves.  His stereoscopes of the park’s statuary, landscaping, and structures were sold widely and are an indispensible tool in recreating historic landscapes.

Perhaps unfairly, Fairmount Park has always suffered in comparison to Central Park, Prospect Park or any other Olmsted project of note.  Recently in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Historian Michael Lewis has tried to champion the “sophisticated” designs and designers of the Park prior to 1867 — the date Lewis contends others begin their analyses.  Lewis appears overly preoccupied with defending Sidney’s 1859 plan for Fairmount against a straw man Olmsted and his estimation of Sidney’s non-moralistic pragmatic design is mired in taste.  In reality, James Clark Sidney (and his partner Adams who, apparently had little to do with the design) were devoted to the image of fussy overcurvaceous parks found throughout A.J. Downing’s unintelligible villa design books.  They had not clearly separated the park from the city, they merely cast “serpentine” paths among the topography, and many of the park’s principal roads seem carriageways and not pedestrian paths.  (Hence, today Lemon Hill to Sedgely down to the Girard Avenue Bridge is the domain of cars and wide open spaces.)  Sidney, a cartographer, was an imitator interested more in the “tactile and useful…than the moral” according to Lewis and did not conceive of moving through a sequence of structured spaces as a kind of pacifying program.  But while Sidney lacked both creative techical vision and a well-developed philosophy of landscape architecture, the flaws of Lemon Hill are not solely rooted in design.  The Park Commission’s notorious financial deterioriation in the 20th c. has allowed overgrowth to swallow up the few interesting features of Sidney’s plan.


Take for instance, the great stone staircase at the very foot of Lemon Hill (very top).  If cleared of growth and opened, this staircase and the network of paths behind it will induce park users to cross Kelly Drive thus linking the vital Lloyd Hall-Waterworks-Boathouse Row complex to Lemon Hill.  These are original to Sidney’s plan.  Consider, too, that Sidney’s carriageways on Lemon Hill were praised by Gardener’s Monthly (1859) for “affording the most exquisite views up and down the river.”  Aside from Fall and Winter, the Schuylkill is completely occluded by the dense stands of trees that have flourished since 1859.  To allow views down the viewshed, the Trust and Commission will remove trees as they did near the future skate park along the river path.  Sidney’s design for the original Fairmount Park is clearly not in the same league as Olmsted’s flagship parks.  Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Fairmount Park System is not its classically well-landscaped rustic sections but its watershed parks (which themselves are manufactured).  However, efforts like this viewshed restoration (which I urge you to follow) will undoubtedly reveal the hidden nuances of Sidney’s plan.


The Trouble with Dams

Verreeville Dam

Though they seem permanent, lowhead dams that straddle creeks and streams throughout the the northeast United States are threatened by a movement to rid watersheds of their industrial features and to restore habitats to their prehuman states. These dams frustrate aquatic biologists, landscape architects, and ecologists who want unobstructed passage of spawning fish deep into watersheds. Within Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system, several weakened or compromised dams — some dating from the late 17th century — have been removed with financial support from organizations like Trout Unlimited, one of many watershed restoration advocacy groups working to improve Pennsylvania watersheds depleted by industrial pollution.

Just recently, members of the natural lands reclamation division of the Fairmount Park Commission effected the removal of the Holmesburg Dam (1699): a structure of unquestionable historical significance that powered a combination sawmill and gristmill for much of the 18th century. The dam was the last vestige of a complex that one stood on the distant fringes of an international colonial trade network. At high tide, grain and lumber from the mill complex south of Frankford Avenue was shipped via shallow draft boats to Philadelphia and distant colonial ports.

Weakened by floods, the dam was breeched by Park ecologists to allow fish passage. Most other dams in Fairmount Park waterways dating from the 1920s-1930s were designed to create recreational swimming holes. Though structurally sound, these dams lack the historical weight of Holmesburg and are similarly threatened.

The debate over the value of these structures suggests two different visions for America’s urban parks. Although park officials in the early 20th century demolished mill buildings and make-work crews planted trees during Roosevelt’s WPA, prior to the emergence of an ecological worldview stressing biotic interconnectedness these efforts to restore natural lands were motivated by primarily aesthetic considerations. Yet the move to reform these former industrial zones into pristine prehuman habitats conflicts with the initial purpose of parks: to serve humans. As outgrowths of culture, these structures are artifacts and suggestive of an era when society was dislocated for the sake of production.  Although dam removal advocates suggest that humans will benefit from improved fishing, other urban park users will suffer from a depleted cultural landscape. Fish passage advocates also point to the existence of a natural history of fish: that the story of navigable rivers preceded that of waterpower and colonial industry.

In the absence of a strong preservation rationale, why protect these dams? Surely the dams might recall the industrial heritage of the valleys but most are not attracted to them for this reason. As landscape architects have long understood, spaces are perceived by a variety of senses and special attention should be given to auditory and olfactory sensations within new spaces. Sound, according to landscape architect Jere Stuart French in City Landscape, fosters attachment to space and “plays upon our subconscious comprehension, which tends to result in our liking or disliking a place but not knowing why.” The sound of water cascading over a lowhead dam, producing white noise, creates a zone of contemplative serenity. While people pay $50 for a non-looping white noise machine, dams cost nothing to produce organic white noise of infinite variety. Visually, cascading water is one of nature’s most captivating forms.

It is worth remembering that preservationists do not speak vacuously when they refer to a “cultural landscape” of which dams are a part. Once utilitarian, these structures reflect humans’ enjoyment of simple pleasures. Now they are locales where humans collect themselves and chart their paths — modern versions of oracular or sacred space. In our effort to write a natural history of fish we must not to forget that a park’s structures are but history writ spatially and that parks began as fundamentally restorative places for humans.