The Opulent City and the Sylvan State: Art and Environmental Embodiment in Early National Philadelphia

Laura Igoe Tyler School, Art of Temple University 2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow The Opulent City and the Sylvan State: Art and Environmental Embodiment in Early National Philadelphia For a month this summer, I used a PACHS Dissertation Research Fellowship to conduct primary research at the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the College of Physicians, and the Franklin Institute. This research supported my dissertation, which considers how artists and architects visualized, comprehended, and reformed Philadelphia’s rapidly changing urban ecology during the early national period. I explore a variety of different media – including popular depictions and manifestations of Penn’s Treaty Elm, fireplace and stove models by Charles Willson Peale, architectural designs for the Philadelphia Water Works by Benjamin Latrobe and Frederick Graff, and a self-portrait bust by the sculptor William Rush – in order to demonstrate that, for these artists and architects, the human body served as a useful metaphor, not only for understanding and representing natural processes but also for framing aesthetic perceptions of the city’s environment. I specifically examine the artistic and architectural implications of corporeality by exploring the ways in which it enabled Philadelphians to understand and reimagine their environment, its domestication, transformation, preservation, and exploitation. The PACHS Fellowship provided a unique opportunity to visit multiple Philadelphia repositories and their rich collections of material pertaining to urban planning, natural history, technology, design, and public health. Not only did I locate valuable sources at these libraries and archives, but I also became more familiar with these institutions and their holdings at an early stage of my dissertation. Staff members directed me to new and exciting material that I was unaware of and I developed important contacts that will be valuable in the future as I continue my research. Many of the archives and libraries I visited own a wealth of prints, drawings and maps that constitute critical historical evidence for my dissertation. Even though most natural history drawings in the Benjamin Smith Barton collection at the American Philosophical Society are reproduced online, viewing these items in person allowed me to see small details and understand their original size. A series of rattlesnake anatomical drawings attributed to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, for example, are several feet long, rendering them more significant and permitting the viewer to focus on the internal circulatory systems of the snake, which I argue warrant comparison with Latrobe’s architectural designs for the Philadelphia Water Works. I also came across an engraving of an ambiguous, biomorphic subject by Barton within the same collection that is so difficult to accurately identify, it is hesitantly titled “Fungus, tree, or anatomical part?” Images like these demonstrate how closely botany and anatomy were intertwined epistemologically in America during the early national period, complicating citizens’ relationship to the natural world. The Print and Photograph Department at the Library Company also holds many important visual materials documenting environmental change in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, including original drawings and engravings from The City of Philadelphia, the first comprehensive visual representation of the city in 1800, by Thomas and William Russell Birch. Sarah Weatherwax assisted me in locating an 1860 engraving of the Centre Square Pumping Station, printed by the Public Ledger after a drawing by John Barralet, which includes a poem that attests to the significance of the Water Works within the changing nineteenth-century urban landscape: “Yon Marble Hall – Irreverently Styled . / The Pepper Box was once our city’s pride / Around it, lofty trees and verdure smiled - / Now swept away by times unsparing tide / Alas: ‘Tis sad – with every fading year, - / To see our ‘ancient landmarks’ disappear / Increase of population on the banks / of Schuylkill must the water soon pollute / Then Fairmount’s buildings, mounds and rock-hewn tanks / will pass away. Its waterwheels be mute.” This printed poem conveys nostalgia for an important city landmark and the “verdure” and unpolluted water it was associated with. A similar sentiment is expressed in an 1829 wood engraving by George Gilbert of the monument erected to commemorate the former location of the Treaty Elm, marking the site of William Penn’s Treaty with the Delaware Indians in Kensington. Here, a stone monument serves as a type of grave marker for the historic Elm, which fell down in an 1810 storm, providing a classical signifier for the tree that was perceived as a relic of American antiquity. One of the many highlights of my fellowship month was visiting the Franklin Institute to view the Graff Collection of drawings of the Fairmount Water Works. Curator of Collections, John Alviti, is extremely knowledgeable about Philadelphia history and had very helpful advice about my dissertation topic. The Graff Collection is not digitized nor cataloged online and viewing Frederick Graff’s drawings in person allowed me to better understand the infrastructure of the Water Works project. Drawings and maps of the underground pipes supplying the city with water, for example, support my argument that the Water Works functioned as a circulating body, providing the city with healthy water through a sophisticated network. There were many other important texts and documents – too numerous to include in this short summary – that I consulted at the Historical Society, the Library Company, the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians which expanded my knowledge of forest conservation, theories of yellow fever, and efficient fireplace design in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In an 1832 address to the Committee of the Select and Common Councils of Philadelphia, now at the Historical Society, the sculptor William Rush lamented that unregulated development on the Schuylkill’s banks would replicate the “crowded stinking alleyways” that had infiltrated the city’s original grid plan along the Delaware River, shutting out a “free circulation of air” and causing a “pestilential epidemic.” He forcefully urged the council to take immediate action, stating, “now is the time to make the river Schuylkill useful or useless, in a future day.” This impassioned address verifies artists’ deep involvement with environmental reform during the early national period and the PACHS Fellowship permitted me to identify a wealth of primary evidence like this to support my dissertation topic.

Laura Igoe