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From Wellhouse to 'Green' House

One of the oldest wellhouses in the country was converted into a sustainable restroom for use in a park visited by millions of people annually.

Not many things are functional after nearly 150 years, but the Wellhouse in Brooklyn's Prospect Park was recently given new life. Originally built in 1869, the facility was designed by Calvert Vaux in a public park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Water features were key to the park’s layout, and the Wellhouse was built to pump water into the park lakes and fountains.


prospect park wellhouse old

An existing image of the wellhouse before the reconstruction.

Prospect Park Wellhouse3

Credit: Prospect Park Alliance

When it was first built, the Wellhouse was considered an engineering achievement. The facility connected to an underground cistern that could be viewed through a glass dome above. Once the park was connected to the New York City water system in the early 20th century, the Wellhouse became obsolete. Over time, the cistern was filled in, the glass dome removed, and an existing chimney was demolished, leaving just the Wellhouse to stand alone.

The Prospect Park Alliance - a non-profit which cares for the park in partnership with the city - led conversion of the historic Prospect Park Wellhouse into a much-needed public comfort station. Despite being the only remaining Prospect Park building designed by Calvert Vaux, the Wellhouse was serving as a storehouse and had been closed to public use for 80 years.

prospect park composting toilet wellhouse history collage

Credit: "The Engineer"

With funding from the New York City Council, the Alliance used this project as an opportunity to demonstrate sustainable practices. The renovated Wellhouse features composting toilets, the first in a New York City public park. These toilets use 97% less water than a typical toilet, and convert waste into compost. Estimates project the facility will reduce water entering the New York City sewer system by 250,000 gallons. New full-time "residents' in the Wellhouse, in the form of thousands of worms, rest in the composting tanks beneath the facility. In 10 years, they will produce life-enriching compost.

Since this was the first composting restroom in a New York City public park, it was important that construction went smoothly. Many techniques were used to preserve the structure. For example, a deficient retaining wall behind the facility was restored. In addition, underpinning occurred carefully, in stages, to protect the Wellhouse foundation and superstructure.

Along with promoting sustainability, the Alliance aimed to restore the Wellhouse's historic elements. A new roof was installed, brickwork repaired, and beautiful portico recreated in period-appropriate colors, using historic
photos as a guide. The renovation garnered positive attention from the public, the media, and park staff.

"After nearly a century, Prospect Park Alliance has restored a piece of park history to public use. Being able to provide more restroom facilities to park visitors, while advancing the environment, is a win-win situation.” - Sue Donoghue, Prospect Park Alliance President

prospect park wellhouse4

Recreated portico in period-appropriate colors. Credit: Propsect Park Alliance

Special Inspection Highlights

Urban performed special inspections for this renovation. As is required by the New York City Building Code, Urban examined materials, operations, and equipment to ensure technical compliance with the requirements of the plans and specifications for the facility’s construction. Work included restoring the historic Wellhouse, enlarging the basement and underpinning, and completing below-grade concrete work. Urban provided special inspections for:

  • Structural steel welding
  • Cold-formed steel
  • Cast-in-place concrete
  • Underpinning
  • Mechanical systems
  • Structural stability 
  • Excavations, sheeting, shoring, and bracing
  • Site preparation
  • Concrete test cylinders
  • Footing and foundation and frame inspection