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Water is spouting from Swann Memorial Fountain this month for the first time since 2019, bringing back the sparkling splashes after a season turned off for pandemic safety reasons.
As one of the central pieces of architecture on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Logan Circle fountain is a popular summertime destination for residents (you’re not supposed to swim in it, but kids do anyway). It’s also a tourist stopping point, surrounded by museums, hotels, dining destinations — it was the namesake of the city’s top-rated restaurant at the former Four Seasons nearby — and plenty of bars.
Sculpted by Alexander Stirling Calder, the landmark’s origin was just the opposite. Opened in 1924, it was erected in memory of a leader of a temperance organization who believed having water fountains all around the city would keep Philly sober.
The now-picturesque location has a more macabre history. A century before the fountain, the scenic square that now welcomes strolling pedestrians was the site of Philadelphia’s public executions.
The area now home to many of Philly’s museums and cultural institutions was once known as Northwest Square. Far from being considered Center City, it was a remote area away from most commerce. And it had a bad rep.
It served as a burial ground for the city’s forgotten or cast aside. Foreigners, criminals, African Americans and poor people were laid to rest there.
It was also the site of a gallows where up to 100 men and at least four women were publicly hanged. The last person executed there was a 27-year-old named William Gross. Found guilty of stabbing his mistress to death after an argument, he was hanged in 1823.
Understandably, folks didn’t exactly want to hang out in the square. It was time for a rebrand.
Two years after Gross’ hanging, Northwest Square was renamed Logan Square after James Logan, the 14th mayor of Philadelphia. In 1917, inspired by Parisian urban planning, French architect Jacques Greber reimagined the entire Ben Franklin Parkway and turned Logan Square into Logan Circle.
In the late 19th century, Temperance Movement backer Dr. William Cary Swann founded and led the Philadelphia Fountain Society.
“[O]ur object,” wrote Swann, “is the erection and maintenance in this city of public drinking fountains for the health and refreshment of the people of Philadelphia and the benefit of dumb animals.” (Back then, animals filled the streets as the primary means of transportation.)
The idea was also to discourage people from drinking alcohol. Potable water wasn’t easy to come by, and beer was often considered safer to drink. It was Swann’s hope that Philadelphians would quench their thirst at one of the outdoor watering holes rather than inside a tavern.
At its peak, the Philadelphia Fountain Society maintained more than 80 drinking fountains around the city.
Swann was such a force behind the organization that after his death, the number of society fountains fell to around 60. To commemorate his legacy, his wife Maria J. Swann arranged for the society to build one for him.
News reports from the time suggest she left between $80,000 to $100,000 for the project in her will. About 30 years later, Logan Circle’s now-iconic Swann Memorial Fountain was born.
Sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder — son of City Hall artisan Alexander Milne Calder and father of mobile-inventor Alexander Sandy Calder — designed and built the fountain with architect Wilson Eyre.
After about a decade of planning and four years of work, the fountain was unveiled in 1924.
Crafted in the Art Deco style, the fountain comes to life through three bronze human figures, intended to be depictions of Philadelphia’s Indigenous Lenni Lenape people.
The bronze sculptures are also stand-ins for bodies of water in Philadelphia. In size order:
- A young girl symbolizes the trickling Wissahickon Creek
- An adult woman lounging around the neck of a swan represents the Schuylkill River and a pun on Dr. Swann’s name
- A man stands in for the Delaware River
Mini fountains made up of bronze frogs and turtles also adorn the perimeter of the basin.
Today, it’s rare for a tourist to visit Philadelphia without catching a glimpse of the fountain, as it now sits in the middle of many cultural destinations.
To the west is the Franklin Institute, built in 1931; to the south is the Academy of Natural Sciences, built in 1876; to the north is the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library, opened in 1927; and a bit further to the east is Philadelphia City Hall, completed in 1901.
After more than a year of gathering and distancing restrictions enforced to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Swann Memorial Fountain’s geysers are spouting once again.