Few things delight the eye or better serve as public focal points than water spouting fountains. You’d expect to find them in cities, like Bridgeport, where traffic swirls around the Wheeler Fountain with its central bronze mermaid holding an electric torch in one hand and a child in the other. But they exist in small towns like Norfolk where, at a corner of the town green, a granite column topped by a globe balancing three fish also sports a lion’s head pouring water into a basin.
Since Roman times, public fountains have been sources of pride symbolizing healing, purity, peace, and civilization itself. At one time designed for the practical purposes of furnishing water for travelers and their animals and later automobiles, today they highlight a community’s artistic exuberance or memorialize people and events. Regardless, moving water still mesmerizes the senses with sparkle, trickling sound, and dewy smells.
Many Connecticut fountains were privately donated in memory of prominent citizens. Simsbury’s four tiered White Memorial Fountain on State Route 10 was dedicated in 1892 in memory of Dr. Roderick White, town physician for almost half a century. A granite fountain on the Windsor green honoring Hezekiah Bradley Loomis, a founder of what is now the Loomis Chafee School, was erected in 1878. Jets of water shoot from a basin situated between four rose garlanded pillars topped with a classical entablature. “Exhilaration through water as a living commemorative,” aptly reads a plaque.
Completed in 1899, Hartford’s Corning Fountain in Bushnell Park remembers businessman John B. Corning, who is said to have operated a grist mill on the site. The 28 foot high, two tiered structure recalls the area’s past with idealized bronze statues of Native Americans surrounding the basins, and animals—a mountain lion, beaver, bear, and fox—that spout water. The structure is crowned by an antlered hart, or deer, the city’s icon.
Not all fountains commemorate individuals. Constructed of monumental stone blocks set in a large basin of flowing water, Torrington’s fountain in Coe Park was dedicated to Vietnam era veterans in 1981. New London’s 2011 Whale Tail Fountain, featuring water sheeting over leviathan flukes, references the city’s maritime heritage.
Generally revered as high public art, some fountains are the work of masters. Norfolk’s was created by architect Stanford White, designer of the arch in New York’s Washington Square Park. Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed Bridgeport’s Wheeler Fountain.
Gifts of flowing water are not always well admired or received. Rockville’s 1883 Cogswell Fountain, donated by Dr. Henry Cogswell, a wealthy San Francisco dentist and Tolland native, features an elaborate pedestal with water streaming on two sides. It pours from a fish’s mouth and trickles through a maze of figures including birds, frogs, a turtle and various plants. Topped by a life-sized sculpture of the donor holding a glass of water in one hand and a temperance pledge paper in the other, it was among thirty-one so called temperance fountains Cogswell funded nationwide to promote water over alcohol.
Maybe this small mill city didn’t appreciate the message, the architecture, or the donor’s egotism. Within a couple years, the statue was toppled and dumped in Shenipsit Lake. Retrieved and replaced, it soon disappeared again, reappearing in 1908 when found outside a nearby building with a sign around its neck reading, “I’ve come back for old home week.” Eventually, it succumbed to a World War II scrap drive. In 2005, Rockville made peace with Dr. Cogswell, and a re-created statue was placed on a restored pedestal.
Vandalism is not new. Even a beloved fountain like Manchester’s Dancing Bear in Center Park was damaged within a month of installation in 1909. Time also takes its toll on sculpture and plumbing. And while construction is celebrated, maintenance and repair are acts of quiet dedication. In recent years, restoration of Wheeler, Corning, Dancing Bear and other fountains have kept faith with both the past and future, demonstrating renewed appreciation for their beauty and symbolism.
Civic circulatory systems, fountains embed multiple meanings in our landscape. Places are diminished when they are removed, run dry, or relegated to growing flowers. It’s best to go with the flow.