All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1991

The Centre Square Water Works: A Monument to Government Inefficiency

Mr. Maccaro practices law on Long Island.

The Centre Square Water Works was an ornate structure in the heart of Philadelphia and for many years was one of the city’s best known landmarks. Designed in 1798 by Benjamin Latrobe, it resembled an ancient Greek temple, complete with Doric columns and pediments. Although now remembered mainly as an architectural oddity, the WaterWorks is also a landmark in the history of state involvement in the American economy, and provides a cautionary tale of government waste and inefficiency.

The Philadelphia water system was the first large-scale public works project in our nation’s history. As Philadelphia’s population grew, demand overburdened its network of public water wells, which once were the pride of the city. In 1797, a group of prominent citizens petitioned the City Council to rectify the situation, and in the following year Latrobe, the nation’s leading architect, submitted his plan. It called for water to be pumped, using the newly invented steam engine, from the Schuylkill River to Centre Square, where a steam-powered pump located in the Grecian temple would make it available to the rest of the city.

The Latrobe plan was opposed by Oliver Evans, a pioneer industrial designer. Evans was the inventor of the first practical high-pressure steam engine, and the author of The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide, a best-seller that was indispensable to the mechanics of the early 19th century. He also is credited with being the originator of the modern assembly line. Evans noted several glaring deficiencies in Latrobe’s system, and put forth his own plan. He correctly asserted that the Water Works’ capacity as designed by Latrobe was merely 7,500 gallons, a figure grossly inadequate for the city’s needs. Additionally, he argued that the system could not be built at Latrobe’s estimate of $150,000.

While Evans was a better mechanical designer, Latrobe was a far superior lobbyist. The City Council was composed of members of the leading families of the city; they were wealthy and cultured, and patterned themselves after the English aristocracy. Latrobe, a sophisticated and well-educated English gentleman, was skilled in the art of flattering and cajoling the Council into adopting his viewpoint. In contrast, Evans, despite his mastery of the technology of the day and his many accomplishments, was nonetheless, in the words of historian David Freeman Hawke, a “dirty fingernail” man. He, in common with most of the great mechanical designers of the period, was a product of the working class, and knew next to nothing about how to charm socially prominent government officials.

Latrobe realized that the key to winning over his audience was a sophisticated presentation. He published and presented to the councilmen a polished and extensively illustrated booklet that featured some of the highest quality engravings made in America up to that time. While Evans concerned himself solely with the technical issues involved, Latrobe stressed the aesthetic appeal of his plan. He impressed upon the councilmen that they were authorizing not a mere utility, but rather a grand monument that would reflect for generations to come the greatness of the city and themselves.

The Council enthusiastically endorsed Latrobe’s plan, and construction of the Centre Square Water Works began in May of 1799. Latrobe, however, grossly exceeded his budget and far surpassed his promised construction time. Instead of costing $150,000 and taking about half a year to complete, as Latrobe had led the Council to believe, the actual cost of construction was $500,000 and the time to completion was 18 months. Further, Evans’ objections were proved to be fully justified: the Water Works was incapable of meeting the city’s demand and operated at a continual deficit. It was finally abandoned in the early 1800s, to be replaced by a system that adopted many of Evans’ ideas.

The Philadelphia government of 1797 recognized the need for a modern water system, but was ill-equipped to evaluate and implement a practical solution. The Water Works fiasco set the trend for future public works projects. Then as now, the procurement process was politicized, costs and time overruns far exceeded expectations, and the end result was a dubious scheme that did little more than waste taxpayers’ money. 

1.   Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) designed the Bank of Pennsylvania building in Philadelphia and supervised the rebuilding of the Capitol after the Wag of 1812. He died of yellow fever while supervising construction of the New Orleans water system.

2.   The eager of Oliver Evans (1755-1819) is described by David Freeman Hawke in Nuts and Bolts of the Past: A History off American Technology, 1776-1860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).