From comfort station to exhibit space in Fairmount Park

Two historic buildings in Fairmount Park that had been neglected for decades are being restored.

Over 200 buildings were constructed for the massive Centennial Exposition in 1876. There are now only four remaining. Two are well known: Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum) and the Iowa House (now Centennial Cafe, serving a mean panini). The other two structures are bathrooms.

The bathrooms have not been lavished with the attention the other two received. The small, identical buildings — each about 20 feet by 22 feet — have been languishing behind the Horticulture Center for decades. The roofs had caved in, and they were buried in tall weeds and creeping vines. They weren’t all that great to begin with.

“They were not terribly attractive bathrooms,” said Kim Andrews, director of the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden, a nearby traditional house and koi pond. “I have this thing where I like to look through time and visualize how things used to be, and looking through time at these bathrooms was not anything special.”

What they lack in beauty, they make up for in authenticity. Andrews applied to be the caretaker of the former bathrooms, renovating them to be used in concert with the Shofuso Japanese House, which was built in the 1950s about 50 yards away. The 1876 bathrooms are a physical link to the original Japanese Garden built for the Centennial Exposition.

“Shofuso is at the site of the first Japanese garden in North America in 1876, and there has been a continuous Japanese presence since that time,” said Andrews. “These two buildings give us a physical anchor to 1876, and give us a place to start our story.”

With $500,000 cobbled together from the City and the Pew Heritage Philadelphia Program, Andrews is building a flagstone plaza between the two small buildings, renovating one of them and programming it as an exhibition space. She says the second building eventually will be turned into, what else, a bathroom.

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