Big new event pavilion at Fairmount Water Works will be replaced next year, after some express concerns

The larger structure is only temporary, the city says, to accommodate the rush of pandemic-delayed weddings.

The pavilion on Mill House Deck at the Fairmount Water Works has led some to register complaints. It won't be returning next season.

The pavilion on Mill House Deck at the Fairmount Water Works has led some to register complaints. It won't be returning next season.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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A temporary grand pavilion erected at the Fairmount Water Works by its concessionaire won’t be returning next year, after people expressed concerns that it blocks views of and access to the historic space.

The oversized tent is situated on the landmark’s Mill House Deck, which offers a clear view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schuylkill River, and Water Works’ historic architecture.

Used for weddings and special events hosted by Cescaphe Events Group, it’s just one piece of the local firm’s venue at the Fairmount Water Works site, where the company has been hosting picture-perfect weddings and financially supporting upkeep of the facility for years.

Raised in the spring with approval from the city’s Parks and Recreation and Licenses and Inspections departments, the structure is “a temporary solution to serve the backlog of weddings and celebratory events delayed and canceled over the last two years due to the pandemic,” Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup told Billy Penn.

The pavilion is set to come down in the fall, Soukup said, and is “not intended for ongoing use at the site.”

Cescaphe — which hosts over 1,000 weddings annually, according to its website — has venues at or near other historically significant places across the city, like City Hall, the Down Town Club, and Franklin Square. It celebrated the addition of the tent-like structure at Water Works on its Instagram story in late May.

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

Using the Water Works site for private events was a matter 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 at the Schuylkill River under Frederick Graf’s elegant 19th Century temple at the Fairmount Water Works?” Saffron wrote in a post that received 511 likes and 60 comments. “Now a full-time wedding venue.”

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

View of the pavilion from Parks on Tap

View of the pavilion from Parks on Tap

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Fairmount Water Works is on Philadelphia’s Registry of Historic Places, and it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The site sits 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 agreement between Cescaphe and the city — one of several public-private partnerships the city uses to prop up 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 over public access to the space, noting the importance of concession agreements in helping to maintain the Water Works. “[It’s] 2000 square foot off limits,” wrote @hmchugh430, suggesting people could easily walk around and should “appreciate that someone is paying for the upkeep.”

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

“The lawn area is also actively used by the public during events,” Soukup said. “The trail that runs in front of the Water Works complex and leads to the Engine House, South Garden and beyond is also used by the public during events.”

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The Parks Department, though, is “mindful” of the concerns some have voiced over changes to the scenery, Soukup told Billy Penn.

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

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

It’s not new for the Mill House Deck to house a temporary structure. Tents are allowed at the site “for seasonal use,” typically in April through October, according to Soukup. Past tents — which appeared more traditional in comparison to this year’s — have required the same type of approval from Parks & Rec and L&I that the current structure got, Soukup said.

For Cescaphe’s part, a spokesperson called the company “devoted stewards of the Water Works since day one,” who are dedicated to making sure “this majestic building and property is available to everyone.”

“Through our investment, maintenance and promotion, 30,000 people or more annually are able to celebrate milestone moments with friends, family and coworkers at this iconic location,” the Cescaphe spokesperson said. “We take our responsibility for the property seriously and are proud that the Water Works continues to be a special part of our city for all to enjoy.”

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital