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Philadelphia's Waterworks: Centre Square

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As Philadelphia grew in size in the late eighteenth century, it became clear that there was an increasing need for a supply of clean water. This demand was intensified by the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1793 and 1798. Benjamin H. Latrobe was hired to design a system using the water from the Schuylkill River. A pump was set up at the foot of Chestnut Street to pump water from the Schuylkill to street level, whence it flowed to Centre Square. There, Latrobe designed a building in the neo-classical style which housed a steam engine to pump water up to a holding tank on the upper floor, with the water then distributed throughout the city by gravity via wooden pipes. The Centre Square Waterworks was started in 1800 and opened on January 27, 1801. This waterworks remained in operation for just over a decade, at which time it was replaced by the Fairmount Waterworks. The Centre Square building was used as a distribution tank until it was torn down in 1829.

Birch: Centre Square
William Russell Birch. "The Water Works, in Centre Square Philadelphia. Drawn, Engraved & Published by W. Birch & Son Neshaminy Ferry." From The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America. Philadelphia, 1798-1800. Ca. 11 x 13 3/8. First Edition. Engraving. Laid paper. Margins trimmed to plate mark. Bottom right corner of margin expertly filled. Two very small losses of image in trees right hand side. Partial hand color. Very good condition.

When issued in 1800, William Birch's prints of Philadelphia collectively formed the first series of views of any American city, and as such they are of great historical importance. The superior quality of the work is evidenced in the scope of its conception, the artistic excellence of the prints and their fine execution. The prints provide a unique visual record of Philadelphia at a time when it was the most important and cosmopolitan city in the Western Hemisphere, and for a time was the capital of the newly formed United States. Each print illustrates a scene, focusing on the sophistication of the inhabitants and the stateliness of the homes and public buildings.

The project of producing this series was carried out entirely in Philadelphia, and while many other individuals were involved, including Birch's son Thomas who provided many of the original drawings, the prints were the work of William Birch himself. He not only conceived and planned the project, but he also drew many of the scenes and did much of the engraving and publishing. $2,200

Barralet: Centre Square
John James Barralet. "View of the Water Works At Centre Square Philadelphia." Philadelphia: H. Quig, ca. 1830+. Fourth state. 11 3/4 x 20 1/8. Stipple by Cornelius Tiebout. Hand color. Several expertly repaired tears in margins with just into image. Else, very good condition. Fowble: 286; Stauffer 3234, Snyder, 110.

This lovely view of the Centre Square Waterworks was drawn by John James Barralet (ca. 1747-1815), an Irish artist who came to Philadelphia about 1795. Barralet had established a reputation as a landscape and historical artist in Dublin and London. When he first arrived in Philadelphia he was hired as an engraver with Alexander Lawson, and he took up painting scenes in and around Philadelphia. The engraving is by Cornelius Tiebout, who worked in New York, London and finally Philadelphia around 1799. Tiebout was the best of the early, American-born engravers, and this lovely etching is one of his finest works. This is the fourth state of the print, probably issued in the early 1830s. H. Quig acquired Tiebout's plate, and it appears that he added a small figure to the center of the print, perhaps in an attempt to enliven the scene. This figure was crudely engraved, quite out of scale, and so Quig attempted to burnish the image off the plate. This erasure was only partially successful, and so the third and fourth states of the print shows a light ghost image of this unfortunate interloper. The fourth state is distinguished from the third by the appearance of Quig's imprint at the bottom. $975


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