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Let your appreciation flow at the Waterworks Museum

An arched wall marks where the building was enlarged in 1897 for the addition of the five-story Allis steam engine.

Richard Moskow For the boston globe

An arched wall marks where the building was enlarged in 1897 for the addition of the five-story Allis steam engine.

Were you surprised this morning when you turned on the tap to brush your teeth or make coffee and water gushed from the faucet? Of course not. We take for granted one of the nation’s oldest and finest water systems. But if you ever wondered where the water comes from, and how it gets into your home, the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum at 2450 Beacon St. has the answers.

You may have driven by the museum and not recognized it. Across from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, it occupies the original reservoir pumping station. City architect Arthur H. Vinal designed the building in the romantic style of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church. When it was completed in 1887, he was so proud of his work that he had his and his wife’s faces carved into the sandstone trim.

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The building opened to the public as a free museum in 2011. “The most important thing about the museum,” says Dr. Suanna Selby Crowley, an archeologist and manager of development, “is that it is no longer going to be a hidden gem.” Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the waterworks is valued for its history, unique exhibits, and architecture.

Interactive displays explain the water system. A short home movie, taken in 1974 by Al Arena, who worked at the pumping station, shows the engines in operation. Volunteer docents, some retired engineers, interpret the exhibits, tell stories, and give tours. And, to celebrate World Water Day, March 23, the museum will open an art exhibition devoted to water.

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When the pumping station was built, Boston’s need for fresh water was critical. Water pressure was so inadequate that in 1872, a fire burned downtown for 15 hours and caused $80 million in damage. Also, the population was increasing, more than 100,000 new residents between 1870 and 1880. More people and more horses meant more sanitation and health challenges. A good supply of clean water was essential.

The Metropolitan Waterworks met the need. Today, when you step inside and enter Great Engines Hall, you’ll see three dinosaur-sized steam engines under the soaring ceiling. The first, at one-and-a-half stories tall, is the smallest. Lowell native Erasmus Leavitt designed the engine. It is as beautifully wrought as sculpture, the work of proud artisans.

The waterworks expected the Leavitt engine to serve for years, but as immigrants arrived and Boston annexed neighboring communities, more water was needed. In less than a decade, a state-of-the-art, two-story Worthington engine pumped alongside the Leavitt. Yet, the city’s demands soon taxed even the ability of two engines pumping together.

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In 1897-’98, the building was enlarged to accommodate a third engine, the five-story high Allis steam engine. It pumped 30 million gallons every 24 hours. If you get up close and look down, you’ll see its base two stories below where you’re standing. These three steam engines supplied water to Boston’s metropolitan area until the mid-1970s, when the Quabbin Reservoir came on line. They’re still available as back-up in a water emergency.

The small Beaux Arts buildings near the museum that stored coal for the engines are now condominiums. Across Beacon Street, joggers enjoy the 1.5 mile carriage path that rings the reservoir, passing the gate houses that controlled water flow. The museum opens the gate houses on scheduled walking tours.

The museum is accessible by T and provides ample free parking. For days and hours of operation, check waterworksmuseum.org.

Shirley Moskow can be reached at shirley.moskow@rtr.com.
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