Hidden beneath the Waterworks, forgotten ‘Kelly Pools’ reverberate with music

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A forgotten, underground swimming pool in Philadelphia is vying to be the city’s next performance venue.

The Kelly Pools, built in the early 1960s beneath the Waterworks plaza behind the Art Museum, were shut down in 1972 after flooding from Hurricane Agnes.

They have not been used since then. The ceiling lights are still clogged with river silt. The concrete bunkers are lit by tall, narrow windows inches above the river surface.

During last summer’s Hidden City Festival, the general public got a look into the cavernous space for the first time in over 40 years. The Waterworks would like to see more of that kind of activity.

Toward that end, the Blair Brothers — local musicians Will and Brooke Blair — were invited to create a sound installation for the space.

“We started with field recordings of water itself — the Atlantic, the Schuylkill, the Wissahickon,” said Will Blair. “We used wine glasses, a glass armonica, which coincidentally was invented by Ben Franklin, a glass harp … these are instruments that use water to lubricate glass.”

The Blairs pushed these recorded water sounds through a series of filters and midi-circuits to create electronic tones that could be built into an ambient soundscape. The 15-minute surround-sound piece has been installed inside the dry, crumbling pools.

“There is a super-generous reverb. When we press stop, there is a two-second reverb tail,” said Blair. “There’s a washiness to it, and a fluidity to it, inspired by water.”

The soundscape is accompanied by a light installation by the New York-based company Luce, which installed a bank of gently colored lights that mimic the ripple of water on the arced ceiling of the pool cavern.

The installation has been in place for a few weeks, but very few people have heard it. The pools are not open to the public.

The director of the Philadelphia Waterworks, Karen Young, has been taking selected visitors through the space to introduce them to what the space could be. She would like to see it used as a conference center, or a performance space, in order to further dialogues about the science, politics, and history of water.

“We wanted to be part of last week’s Greenbuild conference, but we simply did not have a space large enough,” said Young, referring to a national conference of environmental builders held in Philadelphia. “We want to be the moderate-sized space for conferences, because the desire to learn more about water and stormwater management and environmental issues is growing. We want to be part of telling those stories. We just need a little more room to do it in.”

The pools and a small, off-limits space between the pools and the Waterworks Interpretive Center, have mostly been used for storage. There are still rusty pieces of industrial detritus dating back decades in the space.

“It’s caught in a time capsule,” said Young. “It’s been trapped since 1972. It hasn’t changed.”

The public will be able to see and hear the space for one day next month. On Dec. 14, the Blair Brothers in collaboration with Craig Hendrix (Agave Opera Company) and a team of artists will stage an original opera, “Tributaries,” in the pools. The concert cantata with eight-piece orchestra and three singers will be sung from the perspective of the region’s major waterways, as though the rivers were characters.

“I grew up with opera. My mother sang opera,” said Young. “The Blair Brothers and I had a conversation about music, and one thing leads to another. Now opera is on the table.”

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