Swann Memorial Fountain – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

Swann Memorial Fountain

A tour de force of a fountain, memorializing a man who loved fountains more than anything else. 


Philadelphia’s Logan Circle began as the city’s execution grounds. As the city grew, the area changed immensely, but perhaps nothing altered the character of the space so much as this striking memorial to a man who dedicated his life to fountain-making, which he considered the great moral issue of his day.

Also known as the “Fountain of the Three Rivers,” this 124-foot, water-spewing sculpture is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. In the 19th century, fountains were indisputably a public need. As Dr. Swann put it in an 1870 speech, “the suffering caused by the absence of water in our streets is beyond description.”

Providing fresh drinking water could not only prevent people and animals from drinking dirty, contaminated water—or worse, none at all—it was also an obsession of the Temperance Movement (another involvement of Swann’s), as water was an alternative to booze. Swann helped the Temperance Society construct public fountains across the city.

The Swann Memorial Fountain was designed and built in 1924 by Alexander Stirling Calder (the father of the Alexander Calder you’re thinking of, who made the abstract multicolored mobiles, and the son of the Alexander Calder you’re not thinking of, who did significant sculptural work in Philadelphia’s City Hall). Calder developed the sculpture in the “river god” tradition, shaping three Native American figures that represent the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Wissahickon rivers, surrounding a central geyser. Smaller creek and river creatures (frogs and turtles) spray more modest water jets in all directions.

The woman representing the Schuylkill holds the neck of a swan, a nod to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. The story goes that Helen of Troy’s mother Leda was seduced by Zeus, who came to her in swan form. Calder, seems to have been seduced by a clever pun on “Swann.”

It seems that all of Philadelphia, however, found something to be gleeful about in this fountain. On its opening day in July of 1924, some 10,000 happy spectators danced in the streets. To this day, it remains a favorite spot to wade on a hot summer’s day.

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