Swann Fountain graces both square and city

Philadelphia’s Swann Memorial Fountain, also known as “The Fountain of Three Rivers,” serves as a favorite oasis for city residents and visitors alike. — submitted photo

On hot summer days, Philadelphia’s Swann Memorial Fountain, also known as “The Fountain of Three Rivers,” serves as a favorite oasis for city residents and visitors alike. The fountain’s three main figures, sculpted by Alexander Stirling Calder, represent the city’s major waterways: the Delaware, Schuylkill and Wissahickon Rivers.

What we know today as Logan Circle, was once a large city square. Logan Square was one of the five original squares in William Penn’s layout of Philadelphia. In the early 19th century, Logan Square was once a burial ground and public execution site. By the mid-1820s, Logan Square was being transformed into a residential area with trees, gardens and walking paths.

Construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the 1920s reduced the area to a traffic circle. Designed by French architect Jacques Griber, Logan Circle was intended to have a large space for a monument surrounded by lush gardens. The Swann Memorial Fountain, also known as the Fountain of the Three Rivers, is named for Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. It was designed by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and opened in 1924. Adapting the tradition of “river god” sculpture, Calder created large Native American figures to symbolize the area’s major local waterways: the Delaware River (a man), the Schuylkill River (a woman) and Wissahickon Creek (a girl). Frogs, turtles, a fish and two swans — puns on the name of Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, the fountain’s namesake — complete the group.

Besides serving as the center of Logan Square, the Fountain also stands as the midpoint on the Ben Franklin Parkway, which includes sculptures by two other generations of the Calder family. Calder’s father, Alexander Milne Calder, designed the statue of William Penn atop the tower of City Hall at the southeast end, while, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the northwest end, the mobile Ghosts is by Alexander Calder, Stirling Calder’s son. This led to a local wit referring to the three sculptures as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

For many years the fountain was framed by a magnificent circle of Paulownia trees, which have had to be replaced. The center geyser was designed to shoot more than 50 feet in the air, but it’s normally set to about 25 feet because the wind would blow the water out of the fountain and into traffic. On very windy days, the center geyser must be lowered even more.

During warm months, wading in the fountain is a long-standing Philadelphia custom as children seem to enjoy the playful frogs and turtles that spout water toward the geyser in the center. Although public swimming at the site is banned, the decades-old tradition of jumping into the fountain at Logan Circle by students from the nearby Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School continues every year on the last day of the school year.

Swann Memorial Fountain is located in the center of Logan Square, near 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

 

Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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