Interpreting Shipyards and Coal Wharfs: The Time Dimension in Adaptive Reuse


As the good folks over at Phillyskyline have pointed out, PennPraxis held its last Delaware River walk this past Saturday, counting among its number the mayor himself, who rolled up his pants and traversed the rough terrain of the former Cramp’s Shipyard site in Port Richmond with the hoi polloi.

The midday jaunt from Penn’s Treaty to Pulaski Parks allowed members of the PennPraxis staff to lay out their vision for a reclaimed greenway built in the interstices of Philadelphia’s industrial past. The walk was an attempt to explore the very basic visual topography of the area and to emphasize the dimension of time and less the particulars of proposed designs.

These industrial parcels, though seemingly disconnected and incapable of unification, have concealed linkages that cry out for interpretation—the economic linkage of the hinterland to the entrepot, symbiotic connections of urban industrial operations, neighborhoods and the physical and psychical (dis)connections to work, and the reestablishment of a neighborhood’s connections once severed by urban “convenience” planning.

On an even more elemental level any greenway design must not only physically reconnect the surrounding communities to the water, but in a post industrial era where few consider the “waterfront” to be a space of work, these designs must reconnect communities to the concept of meaningful activity on the water. It may be said that in Philadelphia no other tidewater industrial site (until the establishment of the Navy Yard in South Philly in the late 19th century) rivaled the complexity of the Reading Railroad’s Port Richmond Terminal. By 1876, the physical dimension of the terminal were staggering: 21 wharfs totaling 15,000 feet in length could accommodate 250 vessels. To feed the East coast’s insatiable need for coal, the Reading’s infrastructure at Port Richmond moved 2.25 million tons of anthracite coal in the mid 1870s.



Yet behind this bustling terminus was an vise grip of corporate control. The Reading’s coal totals concealed a long supply link that extended into the hinterland of Schuylkill County where the Reading’s efforts to keep costs low meant constant reductions in miners’ wages per ton coal. While Port Richmond was choked with freighters, the Reading’s iron-fisted president, Franklin B. Gowen energetically sought to break up the the Molly Maguires while undercutting smaller coal operators and purchasing their holdings. Only through his corporate discipline could the wharfs of Port Richmond stay littered with black diamonds.

The Port Richmond terminal was more than a coal entrepot and like many large industrial operations its immensity made it integral to a host of smaller industries. The Port Richmond terminal symbiotically sustained shipbuilders like Wm. Cramp and Sons and Neafie and Levy, who existed just south of the coal wharfs. The Reading may have relied upon both shipwrights to supply them with their ever expanding fleet of iron-hulled colliers which roved the East Coast. Beginning in the 1880s, grain from the Pennsylvania hinterland was stored at a grain elevator at the Ann St. Wharf (in the 20th century a new grain elevator was constructed which lasted into the 1990s) and the Reading Railroad shipped entire carloads of Lancaster county tomatoes via the car floats to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden before the arrival of the semi truck. And all around the the large yard cropped up coal dealers, supplying Port Richmond and Fishtown with warmth and industrial power.



While it is easy to get lost in the story of the the coal terminal’s bigness and complexity, to fawn over its importance in catalyzing and sustaining the “industrial revolution,” we should not forget the residents’ psychical ambivalence to the yards and the Reading Company. On one hand thousands of Port Richmond residents enjoyed the employment on locomotives, as train handlers, as dockmen, or managers or engineers; most also maintained a deep abiding pride in their work and the Reading Company. In an era when mastery over industrial processes was the ultimate definition of masculinity and most defined their worth by their labor, the yard served to edify both the workers and their families at home. As is the case in many large-scale industrial operations existing for decades, there was a sense of permanency to the rhythms of the railroad, the constant sound of coal cars moving through the throat of the yard between Lehigh and Somerset was as much a part of the landscape of Port Richmond as the streets, the churches, and the ethnic bakeries.

Yet with our post-industrial gaze we tend to romanticize this idealized world of stability: of consistent meaningful work, of consistently homogeneous ethnic enclaves, of the consistency of solid morals. Simultaneous to this vision is the reality of a noxious and dangerous place: a place of unstoppable corporate power: of shantytowns existing within the hollows between corporation boundaries (below), a place of crushed limbs and jobs contingent on the output of miners. Thus, we need to approach the interpretation of the richness of this connection of industry to neighborhood with discernment.



The end of this world and the severing of Port Richmond’s connection to its sustaining river came with the decline of anthracite in the 1950s and 1960s and the building of the Delaware Expressway in the 1970s. In interpreting the history of Port Richmond after the decline of coal, the extension of I-95—which most Port Richmonders regard as a catastrophic watershed—looms like an 800 lb. Gorilla over our story. The road did isolate the community and it is rightfully hated but it represents an era when planning sought to facilitate automobile movement—often to areas outside the city. In the sense that PennPraxis seeks to enhance non-automobile mobility for residents, the I-95 project may soon be interpreted as historic: as an artifact of gasoline looming above the artifacts of coal. Through the conversion of former Terminal or Cramp’s land into greenspace, residents of Port Richmond will have an outlet beyond the Interstate. And by interpreting the various heritage sites along the Delaware, both Port Richmond and the city can psychically reconnect to its legacy of industrial work.

Hill at Wm. Cramp's Shipyard (filled-in drydock) looking South


Here are some works on refiguring post industrial space.

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.

Meditation on Infrastructure: Schuylkill River Park as landschaftspark

Park Shot

Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Park complex, an eight-mile manicured recreation trail paralleling an active freight railroad along the east bank of the Schuylkill River is an excellent specimen of post-industrial interstitial planning.

It also represents a dramatic break with Olmstedean park planning—though the park still reflects unnatural naturality with its clusters of antediluvian boulders and dramatically reconfigured riverbank lawns. But the main theme of the park is not to transport users out of an urban world but to foster reflection on the infrastructure of the city itself. In this way does the park resemble what the Germans call a landschaftspark such as that at Duisburg Nord in Bavaria: a multi-use playground for vigorous activity built on a former brownfield site.


In another way these parks tend to make the process of recreation a meditation on the structures and processes of the industrial world. Allowing views of the city’s concealed infrastructure and filled with objects of unknown function, these parks urge us to look critically at the urban/industrial mechanisms that once dominated our landscapes.

Just watching people use the Schuylkill River Path, it appears that the design of the park forces a sort of questioning mode. Whether it is a biker photographing a railroad signal or a woman reclining on a boulder lulled by the white noise of the Expressway across the river, the path designers have carefully created observation zones and structured the experience of moving through a world of transportation and movement.

Traveling northward along the path from its southern terminus at Locust Street, one is immediately struck with the numerous conduits of movement: from the trackage to the left to the vertical movement of pedestrians on the stairway astride the rather nondescript Walnut Street Bridge, to the traffic in the open subterranean tunnel across the river, to the commuter trains inching slowly across Paul Cret’s ominous black railroad bridge: one immediately understands the significance of travel along and across the river. As an expanding city whose core was nearly surrounded by water, Philadelphia recognized early the importance of bridges. By the latter half of the 18th century Philadelphia relied almost entirely on the western rural areas of Kingsessing and Blockley Townships for fuel and food. Philadelphia business elites also feared the loss of the city’s status as a grain entrepot to upstart cities such as Lancaster and Baltimore. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture avidly supported the construction of a fixed bridge that would channel western goods into city mouths and markets.

A bridge has straddled the Schuylkill at Market Street since the erection of the 1805 “Permanent Bridge,” a wooden structure operated for profit and appreciated for its design innovativeness. Mimicking highway onramps, today two inclined planes currently link the River Park path with the street grade of the Market Street Bridge. Ascending the plane to street grade, your eye is directed to two great symbols of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thirtieth Street Station and four stone eagles salvaged from New York’s Penn Station which sit on the parapet of the Market Street Bridge.

PRR Bridge

Perhaps no other single company has altered the Schuylkill landscape north of Market Street more than the Pennsylvania Railroad. After passing under the Market Street Bridge, three elements testify to the impact of the Railroad on Philadelphia’s form. Just to the right of the railroad tracks after emerging from the Market Street Bridge, a curious black masonry wall appears. This is the last vestige of the infamous “Chinese Wall”: a blockwide elevated viaduct torn down in 1953 which led into Center City and the long-departed Broad Street Station. Both 30th Street and the railroad bridge were an effort to reduce the Railroad’s footprint in Center City in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In place of crenellated Broad Street Station and the obnoxious Chinese Wall, the Railroad constructed its modernist triad: 30th Street, Suburban Station, and a subterranean tunnel connecting them. With the demolition of the Wall in 1953-4, the Railroad opened up a development corridor between JFK Boulevard and Market Street. Other railroads vied for the highly efficient rights-of-way along the Schuylkill. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s main passenger terminal in Philadelphia, a turreted structure designed by Frank Furness, awkwardly stood at 24th and Chestnut Streets.

Meandering further north towards the Art Museum, 30th Street Station looms ever larger while bridge details snap into stark focus. Benches urge an inspection of stonework; of structural members; and materials. The airy and angular Cira Center appears as an apt conclusion to the tour through Philadelphia’s history of connectivity. As Inga Saffron has mentioned, the form of the Cira Center suggests travel of an intergalactic type.

With an extension of the trail to Fort Mifflin slated for 2012, the Schuylkill River Park and path offers new opportunities for meditations on the built environment. Snaking past electrical generating stations, oil refineries, and port facilities, the path represents not just a reclamation of lost industrial space but an opportunity to structure in space a narrative of Philadelphia’s industrial/material past.