One of Prospect Park’s oldest structures, the Wellhouse, has been restored and is now open to the public. Designed by Calvert Vaux in 1869 and located on the edge of the lake, the Wellhouse was once part of an elaborate pumping system that kept water flowing in the park’s man-made waterways.
In its latest incarnation, which opened Monday, it also now houses a public restroom — and the first compostable toilets in a New York City public park.
“The Prospect Park Alliance is so proud to return this historic building to an important public use while also benefitting the environment,” said Prospect Park Alliance President Sue Donoghue at the ribbon cutting ceremony Monday.
The newly restored wooden portico — missing for decades — now sports a playful and colorful facade. Its blue, green, red and yellow colors and stripes are typical of the time period and historically correct.
Considered an engineering marvel at the time, the facility got a thorough technical writeup in the 1872 edition of The Engineer, which said the well was “believed to be the largest in the world.”
While today it would be easy to think the diminutive brick and stone building was perhaps a folly or administration building, the slender tower which once rose next to it would have given a clue to the secrets that lay below. The tower was actually a smokestack for the coal-fired steam engine that powered the underground water pump. The pump was housed in a circular reservoir which sat underground directly in front of the Wellhouse.
When the park was connected to the city water system in the early 20th century, the Wellhouse was no longer needed. The tower was demolished, and the iron and glass dome which once topped the reservoir vanished.
During the project, architect Alden Maddry suspected that portions of the original reservoir wall might still exist. Indeed, excavating less than a foot of dirt led to the discovery of remnants of that brick wall.
The restoration project focused on the existing Wellhouse. Although still standing, it had lost its wooden portico, and the roof was beyond repair. The only information about the original portico was what could be gleaned from black and white photos and lithographs.
No extant historic fabric meant no evidence of the original paint scheme. The colors were chosen based on looking at popular color combinations of the time period and buildings of a similar vintage.
The decorative detail on the outside yields to a spartan space on the interior. The simple structure now holds a three-stalled women’s room and a men’s room. At first glance, the fixtures don’t give away their unusual inner workings. The system uses foam and just three ounces of water, vs. more than a gallon for a normal toilet.
The women’s room was crowded Monday as reporters and photographers pressed into the space for the official tour and demonstration of the flushing of the toilet. “I’ve never seen so many press people in a restroom before,” quipped NYC Council Member Brad Lander, but otherwise the toilet jokes were mercifully sparse.
Seeing the inner workings of the system required heading down the narrow, stone staircase — a surviving element from 1869.
Originally the steps would have led to a tunnel and then an iron staircase down to the reservoir. Brick and rubble stone walls and archways from the original construction are still visible in the space.
Installing the equipment required for the Swedish-designed composting system required excavating a new space adjacent to the historic building. The chamber holds three tanks, filled by the plumbing fixtures above.
After about six months, worms will be added to the mix. The worms will do such a good job breaking down the waste, it will take 10 years to fill the tanks, the Alliance has been told. While this is the first such system in a New York City park, the Bronx Zoo and Queens Botanical Garden have similar systems.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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