Greater Greater Washington

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Historic fountains rot away in a local national park

Two century-old DC fountains sit decaying and neglected in the woods of a national park in Maryland. The fountains had been missing from the 1940s until they were rediscovered in the woods of Fort Washington National Park in the 1970s.


Photo by The Great Photographicon on Flickr.

The top portion of the McMillan fountain, pictured below, was returned to Crispus Attucks park in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in 1983. In 1992 it was moved back to the fenced-off grounds of the McMillan Reservoir just a few blocks away.

The fountain was installed in 1913 at the McMillan Reservoir as a memorial to Senator James McMillan (R - Michigan), who is more remembered locally for his his ambitious McMillan Plan to beautify Washington. The fountain was dismantled in 1941, when the reservoir was fenced off from the public.

McMillan Fountain
Top of the McMillan Fountain today (left) and in 1912 (right).

Though the top of the McMillan Fountain had been restored to the reservoir grounds, a Bloomingdale ANC commissioner told me the base of the fountain was in the woods in Fort Washington along with the remains of the fountain that stood at the center of the now-razed Truxton Circle.

I went to Fort Washington in search of these discarded works of art. I asked a park ranger where the fountain was and she drew me a map, saying that it stood in the park's "dump" and partly behind a fence.

I went to the picnic area nearest the site and walked into the woods a short distance where I found a fence. Behind it stood piles of bricks and other discarded building materials.

Beside the site is a dugout that serves as the back court to Battery Emory, a concrete gun battery built in 1898 to protect the capital city from enemy ships.

As I passed through the unfenced dugout, I immediately spotted few granite blocks that served as the cornerstones of the base bowl. Though they are strewn about the ground, a 1912 photograph can help us identify what pieces went where.

McMillan Fountain Cornerstone
A cornerstone sitting on the ground (left) formed part of the fountain's bottom basin (right).

The elements of the fountain were stacked like totem pole. The bottom element features carved classical allegorical heads from whose mouths water gushed into the carved bowls below.

McMillan Fountain base
Fence material and tree debris cover the carved granite (left) that stood as the fountain base (right).

The next element of the stack is the fluted base to the top bowl.

McMillan Fountain collar
Upside down on the ground (left) is the fluted base for the top bowl (right).

Several other large granite stones are stacked and marked with numbers, presumably to help in reassembly.

McMillan Fountain pieces

The site also contains the rusting remains of the fountain that stood at Truxton Circle, which formed the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Q Street. The circle was built around 1901 and the fountain installed there originally stood at the triangle park at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street in Georgetown.


Truxton Circle stood at Florida Avenue, North Capitol Street, Q Street, and Lincoln Road from 1901 to 1940, when it was demolished to aid commuter traffic.

A newspaper at the time described it as one of the largest fountains in the city. The circle was removed in 1940 to ease the flow of commuter traffic. At that time, the fountain, which may date to as early as the 1880s, made its way to Fort Washington to rust in the woods.

Truxton Circle fountain Truxton Circle fountain bowl rim
The metal pedestal (left) held up the fountain bowl whose rim rusts in pieces on the ground (right). Notice the classical egg-and-dart pattern.

The fountain was also noted for the metal grates that stood near its base. Now these grates sit rusting in the woods.

Fountain grates Grates from the Truxton Circle Fountain

If you want to see the fountain remains for yourself at Fort Washington National Park, go to picnic area C. Beyond the end of the parking lot is a restroom building and behind that is the fountain "graveyard." A fence encloses part of the site, but you can enter through the large gap down the hillside.

Rather than tossing aside our city's artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places.

These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come.

Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

Comments

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So....what's to stop us from renting a truck and snagging some pieces? I mean, far be it for me to advocating stealing our common cultural heritage, but as those entrusted to taking care of it can't seem to even throw a tarp over it and consign it to the "dump", why not? I promise to be at least as respectful as the Park Service is. Maybe it would make a nice flower planter?

by Tim Krepp on Sep 29, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

This is why we can't have nice things. This is disgraceful.

by David C on Sep 29, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

"Rather than tossing aside our city's artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places."

I know this is a matter of opinion, but I couldn't agree more with your opinion. Imagine the "public art" of the new Eisenhower Memorial. Would it's disgarded remnants ever elicit such a wonderful thought?

"These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come."

Because of modernist theocracy that would have you believe if it's not abstract (in form) it's not of our time, this tradition continuing will likely be surrounded by endless ideological arguments. Oddly, this sculpture like the DuPont Circle sculpture get's no respect if it where prposed today, in part becasue of a sort of paternalistic modernism that seems to only celebrate heroic or abstract gestures. While the architectural establishment has a sort of chauvanistic prejudice towards this kind of work, people like you will always proove the lie that this kind of work won't always attract respect and admiration.

by Thayer-D on Sep 29, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

If there was some there, there with the Washington Historical Society, this would be a great project to promote, request funds and coordinate with the appropriate agencies to restore to an appropriate venue. Sadly, because the fountain was originally on NPS property and the discarded pieces are NPS property on NPS property nobody will be allowed to touch their repose.

by Some Ideas on Sep 29, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

Bring them back to DC! Store the parts somewhere out of the elements, at the very least!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 29, 2011 5:45 pm • linkreport

Even if non-functioning, these would be a nice addition to any one of DC's tiny, forgotten triangle parks.

by David C on Sep 29, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

The fountain pieces are extraordinarily heavy and would require some construction equipment to lift and a tractor-trailer to move. Certainly it can be done, but just moving it would require some funding.

I have heard the idea floated to reconstruct the entire McMillan Fountain at the triangle at Rhode Island Ave NW, First St NW, and T St NW by Rustik Tavern in Bloomingdale.

There also appears to be some confusion as to who owns the fountain. It has been on NPS land for decades, but the McMillan Fountain came from a site controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Furthermore, the fountain base was funded by Congress but the top portion was funded by private donations from Michiganders.

The Truxton Circle fountain predates the existence of the Park Service by several decades and was probably the responsibility of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, an arm of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The ownership question can be resolved by some sort of MOU between the Army Corps, the NPS, and the District government. It may require some lobbying. I'd call my Senator, but...

by Eric Fidler on Sep 29, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D "While the architectural establishment has a sort of chauvanistic prejudice towards this kind of work, people like you will always proove the lie that this kind of work won't always attract respect and admiration.

Why not enjoy the beauty in all genres of sculpture? Yes, the abstract can be a little harder to understand, and maybe some people won't be able to understand it under any circumstances, but do we need to only produce art that only everyone can appreciate? ... What's put even advant guard stuff out there so that people are enouraged to stretch their abilities? Have you no faith in the average person to be able to learn?

by Lance on Sep 29, 2011 7:22 pm • linkreport

Lance,
Are you trying to put words into my mouth again? Maybe it suits an argument you're trying to provoke. I like sculpture in any genre, but I don't think I'm the only one who's noticed that the predoniant genre of civic sculpture since WWII has been abstract.

As for your self-anointed arbitration of what constitutes "hard to understand" art, if you think the average person understands the allegorical figures of this or the DuPont Circle fountain, then I have a bridge to sell you. That's why I put the parenthesis in describing these sculptures as "not abstract (in form)", and also to draw the likes of you into arguing something that isn't being argued.

There's little that compares to the Vietnam Memorial's emotional power, but I am equally drawn to the Adams Memorial by August Saint Gaudens in Rock Creek Cemetary. And I definatley have faith in your ability to learn the difference, without having to cast judgement over which one requires a superior intellect. That's assuming you see your self as an average person.

by Thayer-D on Sep 30, 2011 7:36 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D 'There's little that compares to the Vietnam Memorial's emotional power, but I am equally drawn to the Adams Memorial by August Saint Gaudens in Rock Creek Cemetary.'

So why criticize the fact that 'the predoniant genre of civic sculpture since WWII has been abstract? What's 50 or 60 years in the scheme of things? The pendelum will inevitably and unquestionably swing back the other way at some point. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but so what. Isn't there plenty of the August Saint Gaudens style around? And if you really want to see a new monument in that style, can't you spearhead an effort to get us one in some city park (or public property plaza of a private building)? ... or better yet, do something to help get these 'in storage' at Ft. Washington sculptures back on public display?

by Lance on Sep 30, 2011 8:25 am • linkreport

Thanks so much for this! we can now proceed to reunite the various parts of this fountain. I am inquiring with National Park Service. Bests Councilmember Jim Graham

by CM Jim Graham on Sep 30, 2011 8:31 am • linkreport

Oh Lance, you're starting to grasp for straws now. I guess I'll have to wait for the pendulum to swing back to "my" side rather than assume we can walk and chew gum at the same time. By the way, where would you say the pendulum is in the music world?, or better yet, why are you still trying to claim you know where the "pendulum" ought to be?

I'm not interested in your "endless ideological arguments" when most "average" people I know don't even give two cents. How about we both "spearhead" a movement that says our modern world doesn't need to be stuffed in to a catagory from which we all must act. Isn't that typically done by historians once they can see the rear view mirror more clearly? While I wouldn't say your use of rhetorical devices is very original, it sure is above average.

by Thayer-D on Sep 30, 2011 9:08 am • linkreport

I grew up exploring fort washington as a kid. Battery Emory was our favorite. Clearly childhood memories can't be entirely trusted, but i feel like there were more than these two statues stored there. As funny note on my age, my friends and i planned on using battery Emory, and the other facilities at Fort Washington as secret partisan bases after the cleary impending soviet invasion. Thanks for bringing back fond memories, and hopefully introducing Fort Washington to new explorers. I just wish there was a way to determine what else was stored there.

by Tonyt the pug on Sep 30, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

Actually, this may be something of small enough consequence that EHN could help us out. I'll send her office a letter.

by andrew on Sep 30, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

Rebuild Truxton Circle!

by North Capitol on Sep 30, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

Let's get it back...I always wondered exactly where it was.

Gwen Southerland, Chair
McMillan Advisory Group
(MAG)

by Gwen Southerland on Oct 1, 2011 12:44 am • linkreport

Eric,

Congratulations on discovering the provenance of the Truxton Circle fountain! The fountain is clearly delineated as being at the intersections of Pennsylvania, M and 28th on the Hopkins 1887 "Atlas of Washington."

The Evening Critic newspaper of January 11, 1882 refers to it in a description of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day parade, "...Pennsylvania avenue to Georgetown, around the fountain over M street bridge to Twenty-sixth street..."

If any photographs or drawings of this fountain sited in Georgetown are extant, they are probably buried somewhere in the National Archives as the property upon which it sat was a federal reservation.

by Jerry A. McCoy on Oct 3, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

It would be great to see these brought back from the 'grave'! There are plenty of parks and green spaces which have never benefited from fountains so it would be nice to see them have a home in an underserved area of the city.

by Ash on Oct 20, 2011 6:30 pm • linkreport

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