In 1919, in an address to the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, Arthur Cowell introduced an idea for the transformation of a stream bed on the Awbury site.
“The next development…will be that of the aquatic section where the large willows are now seen. A splendid stream of spring water is to supply a goodly sized pond and a series of lagoons which we hope may display some water lilies, etc. and the moist ground nearby may contain the beautiful family of ferns, the swamp orchids, the sedges, cardinal flower, and a whole multitude of bog plants.”
Cowell was speaking as the landscape architect leading the transformation of the Cope landscape into a public arboretum. The watercourse project, designed by Cowell and substantially realized by 1926, was significantly more complex than his early summary. It included two ponds and a “bog garden” plus the small-but-dramatic transitions between these elements. The spring source was configured into a fountain and the stream bed was set within masonry embankments bridged by massive stone elements. Planting plans as well as photographs show the project to be both an ambitious horticultural statement and an affecting romantic landscape.
In the century between Cowell’s conception and today the watercourse has been challenged to maintain its water source, to hold onto its fragile selection of species, and to hold off the inevitability of sedimentation. The old bones of the place remain, but even these were challenged in 2007 by a proposal from a public utility to use the site for stormwater control and infiltration. LDCP was engaged by the Arboretum, supported by a grant from the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, to review that proposal and suggest ways that current needs could be integrated with historic imperatives.
Successful restoration of the Awbury Arboretum Watercourse can only be achieved by integrating our contemporary understanding of urban hydrology, astute horticultural knowledge, and artistry sufficient to recapture the beauty seen in the historic images.
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