Big Fairmount Water Works event tent won’t return next year after complaints

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A large temporary pavilion erected at the Fairmount Water Works by its concessionaire will not return next year, after people raised concerns it was blocking views and access to the historic space.

The oversized tent is located on the monument’s Mill House deck, which offers unobstructed views of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Schuylkill River, and the historic Water Works architecture.

Used for weddings and special events organized by Cescaphe Events Group, it is just one element of the local business venue at the Fairmount Water Works site, where the business has been organize perfect weddings and financially support the maintenance of the installation for years.

Raised in the spring with approval from the Parks and Recreation Department and City Licensing and Inspections, the structure is “a temporary solution to address the backlog of weddings and festive events delayed and canceled over the past two years due to the pandemic,” Parks & Rec spokeswoman Maita Soukup told Billy Penn.

The pavilion is expected to be demolished in the fall, Soukup said, and is “not intended for continued use at the site.”

Cescaphe – which hosts more than 1,000 weddings a year, according to its website – has places at or near other important historic sites in the city, such as City Hall, the Down Town Club and Franklin Square. He celebrated the addition of the tent-like structure to Water Works on his Instagram story in late May.

The large temporary pavilion has an almost trapezoidal roof and is almost transparent except for its black frame and cream-colored curtains hanging from the ceiling and along the sides. But critics, several of whom have voiced concerns to Billy Penn, say its high ceiling and large overall size prevent residents and tourists from being able to fully see and enjoy the historic site.

The use of the Water Works site for private events was the subject of recent debate on social media, when Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron posted about it on Instagram.

“Remember when you could spend a summer evening gazing out over the Schuylkill River beneath Frederick Graf’s elegant 19th century temple at the Fairmount Water Works?” Safran wrote in a post that received 511 likes and 60 comments. “Now a full time wedding venue.”

“Every time I’ve been through in the last 5 weeks it’s been 100% off limits,” Instagram user @mrerikschut wrote in the comments. “Beyond Frustration.”

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Fairmount Water Works is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The site is on city-owned land and is co-managed by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department. Cescaphe contracted with the city to host events at the historic site in 2015, replacing Water Works Restaurant and Lounge operators Michael and Anastasia Karloutsos, who redeveloped the site in the mid-2000s.

The concession contract between Cescaphe and the city — one of several Public-private partnerships the city uses to support its operations — “funds the maintenance and upkeep of the historic facility,” Soukup confirmed.

Some observers, including commenters on Saffron’s post, pushed back on concerns about public access to space, noting the importance of concession agreements to help maintain waterworks. “[It’s] 2000 square feet out of bounds,” @hmchugh430 wrote, suggesting people could easily walk around and should “appreciate someone paying for maintenance.”

The public can access the river side of the Mill House Deck and the Eagle Pavilion through the lawn next to the bridge, Parks & Rec spokesperson Soukup told Billy Penn. The Parks on Tap pop-up beer garden is located nearby.

“The lawn is also actively used by the public at events,” Soukup said. “The pathway past the Water Works complex leading to Engine House, South Garden and beyond is also used by the public at events.”

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The parks department, however, is “aware” of the concerns some have expressed about landscape changes, Soukup told Billy Penn.

“Although the temporary structure does not limit public access to the site, it does impact the view of Fairmount Water Works,” she said.

The temporary pavilion is expected to remain until the fall, but it will not be allowed to return next year. Instead, Cescaphe will have to replace it with a “more traditional tent structure”, she said, one with a lower profile and a smaller footprint.

It’s nothing new for the Mill House Deck to house a temporary structure. Tents are allowed on the site “for seasonal use,” generally from April to October, according to Soukup. Past tents — which looked more traditional compared to this year’s — required the same kind of approval from Parks & Rec and L&I that the current structure got, Soukup said.

On Cescaphe’s part, a spokesperson called the company “dedicated stewards of the water works since day one”, who are dedicated to ensuring that “this majestic building and property are accessible to all”. .

“Thanks to our investments, maintenance and promotion, 30,000 or more people a year can celebrate milestones with friends, family and colleagues at this iconic venue,” the Cescaphe spokesperson said. “We take our responsibility to property seriously and are proud that Water Works continues to be a special part of our town for all to enjoy.”

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Joseph K. Bennett