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Discovery Center at hidden lake in East Fairmount Park breaks ground

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The reservoir has been closed for five decades. That’s about to change.

In a year, the East Fairmount Park Reservoir will re-open to the public after five decades.
Photos by Melissa Romero

Maybe it was because it was the first day that finally felt like fall or maybe it was just that everyone was breathing in some fresh air, but the excitement was palpable at Friday’s groundbreaking of the Discovery Center at East Park Reservoir.

Dozens of people gathered along a dirt road in East Fairmount Park for the ceremony to mark the start of construction of a 14,000-square-foot educational facility spearheaded by Audubon PA and Philadelphia Outward Bound School. The new center, with its proposed rock-climbing wall and tree top observation deck, is exciting in and of itself.

But perhaps even more meaningful to the city and residents of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is that when the Discovery Center opens next year, it will also be a chance for Philly to rediscover the 37-acre lake adjacent to it.

An observation deck is currently under construction at the future Discovery Center.

“When you talk about ‘discovery,’ it’s an interesting theme, because the reality is that we’re kind of rediscovering this area,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke at the groundbrekaing ceremony. Clarke grew up about four blocks from the site.

The lake originally started out as a reservoir when it was built in 1889, providing fresh water for more than 80 percent of Philadelphia residents. People like Clarke and Pennsylvania State Representative Vanessa Lowery Brown will also tell you that the reservoir was a popular recreation area for the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, where kids, teenagers, and adults alike could train and exercise around the lake.

But 80 years after it opened, the Philadelphia Water Department no longer had a need for the reservoir. In 1970, a fence was erected around the 50 acres of land and lake, officially closing it off to the public.

“People used to take family walks and hikes here, but when it was fenced off, it left a void,” said Tonnetta Graham, president of Strawberry Mansion CDC.

Though city residents were barred from the once-popular area, the lack of human contact for so long allowed the reservoir to turn into a wildlife habitat. Despite its location in a major U.S. city, the lake became a popular stopover spot for migrating birds—nearly 200 species have been spotted here.

Talks to re-open the reservoir began as early as 2003, with a long list of advocates urging city and state officials to do so. Then, Audubon PA and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School teamed up and signed on to bring the Discovery Center to the park, all while preserving the unusual man-made-turned-natural site.

Janet Haas, chair of the William Penn Foundation, City Council President Darrell Clarke, and PA State Representative Donna Bullock use binoculars to view the reservoir
The 37-acre lake has been fenced off since 1970.

Only recently did the duo raise the $18 million needed to make the project become reality. Now with full funding in hand—at least $1 million from the William Penn Foundation’s Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative—the Discovery Center will be an educational resource for Outward Bound, which will host what it calls active learning expeditions here. Meanwhile, National Audobon Society will use the center as a research and conservation facility.

And yes, areas within the 50-acre site will be re-opened for public use, as well. The fence coming down will finally reunite the neighborhood with its once beloved piece of Fairmount Park.

For Mayor Jim Kenney, it’s a symbolic and important gesture. “Fencing with barbed wire sends a wrong message to everyone: You’re not welcome, you’re not supposed to be here, you stay out,” he said. “I think what our city has been trying to say for the last year and a half is that we’re all welcome here.”

Renderings by Digsau

Fairmount Park

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