On a warm day next spring water will flow from this lion’s mouth for the first time in decades. And you can drink it.
That’s thanks to the recently completed repair and stabilization of the 1907 Bennett Memorial Fountain at the southeast corner of the Green near Church and Chapel.
The work was done by Francis Miller and his team from ConservArt, the same restorers responsible for the the gleaming new Angel of Peace and her sculptural entourage atop East Rock’s summit.
The project cost approximately $30,000, two-thirds paid for by the Department of Parks, Trees, and Recreation, one third by the Proprietors of the Town Green.
The repair and stabilization are long overdue. Not only because deterioration is advanced. But also because the 1907 fountain, designed by John Ferguson Weir, is significant for what New Haven has become.
It was once so iconic a work of art that no less an orator than presidential aspirant William Jennings Bryan came to New Haven to dedicate it. Bryant was pals with Philo Sherman Bennett, a local grocery magnate who gave to his campaign. Bennett went off and died in Idaho in an accident. He left $10,000 to build a fountain. Now his name is barely visible in the badly weathered Vermont marble.
Most significant of all, the fountain was the first structure on the Green apart from the churches. Its use of a classical model (an Athenian monument on the hills of the Acropolis) in the service of the public health, planning, and welfare (cool drinking water) predated the City Beautiful Movement in New Haven. That resulted in the construction of the New Haven Free Public Library a few years later as well as the other Grecian-themed and columned buildings around the central Green.
As the cold winter wind whipped around his handiwork and Miller gave a tour of the fountain Friday, he was at pains to point out that the job was not one of restoration. It involved cleaning and stabilization of an important public art work damaged both by the tough New England weather and maintenance that could have been more scientifically informed and thoughtful.
“Marble in ancient Athens is one thing ...” remarked the Urban Design League’s Anstress Farwell.
“Marble in New England suffers,” added Miller.
Scaffolding surrounded the 23-foot high sculpture since last June, Miller noted. “It was so labor intensive, I was worried people would see deterioration [when he finished] and feel the money was not well spent. And they wouldn’t understand that the goal is stabilization.”
No one this reporter talked to could remember when water last flowed either out of the lion’s mouth for humans, or out of the sidewalk level troughs for canines, or out of the graceful high urn surrounded by Corinthian columns.
Green Proprietor Anne Calabresi wrote in an email of the prospect of the fountain’s return: “What I love about this fountain besides its Palladian shape is that it also provided for our four-footed friends—a trough for horses and a low basin for dogs. Now that’s real community spirit not to say a high level of human spirit! “
Miller said the plumbing repairs he noticed in the below ground utility box appeared dated from the 1970s or 1980s.
Phase one involved repairing that box, which also was the holding area for large chunks of ice used to cool the water in summer in the fountain’s early years.
Miller said the city did a good job on the pipes and clearing the sewer lines.
It has not done as adequate a job over the years cleaning the marble. Miller pointed to large gouges that may have been caused by power washing and even sandblasting. Both serious no-nos.
“That would explain the severe loss of detail” like the several eggs missing from the egg-and-dart bordering the top of the base section, he said.
Miller’s task then was to repair thousands of hairline cracks in the upper part of the monument. Those were caused both by atmospheric pollution and by organic matter getting inside and dissolving the marble.
Using tiny syringes, he injected lime grout individually in each crack and then filled the larger joints and holes with the right cement compound.
“The wrong one, if it’s harder material than the parent stone, it will pulverize the marble during the freeze/thaw cycle,” he said.
Finally, Miller sprayed the stone with a consolidating agent.
Voila. He said with proper maintenance the Bennett Memorial Fountain should be good for 100 years.
“I’m giving Bob [city parks chief Levine] a full maintenance program.”
The restoration was a big success in the eyes of Diane Pietrosimone, who stands near it when her car is broken and she waits for the bus at the nearby crowded central stop.
As her son Geno played hard to catch, she said the marble looks as bright as the white-painted steeple of Center Church in the background.
“Good job,” she said to Miller.
Farwell said there was a real aesthetic about the wear. “It looks like we dug it up.”
This is so wonderful! I remember drinking from this fountain when I was younger (probably not the most sanitary thing to do) and I always thought it was the most beautiful fountain in the world. I love it! Thanks for restoring it.
posted by: HhE on January 23, 2012 4:03pm
I think this is wonderful.
The fountain’s disrepair and lack of water sent a very bad message—“This is New Haven, and we don’t care.”
I opine that civic pride, as demonstrated in memorials, monuments, and public buildings is invaluable economically.
posted by: Pedro Soto on January 23, 2012 4:17pm
Great article! One small nit to pick… at the time of the fountain’s construction yes, there were only the three churches on the green. However, it’s inaccurate to say that it was the first structure on the Green other than the churches.
The churches were just three of a multitude of structures that stood on the Green at various points in New Haven’s past.
There were several state house buildings, the most recent which stood behind the churches from 1837 until it’s demolition in 1889.
There was also several churches that predated the current three (which were built in the 1800s) including First Methodist, which then moved to their current building across the green in 1848.
Further back among several other buildings- the first Hopkins School building stood on the Green in 1660, as did a prison in 1645, and watch-house from around the same period, and in the the 1700s, a courthouse.
Going right back to the foundings of the city, the long, long gone meetinghouse was square in the center of the green.
You probably can say that this was the first structure erected since the construction of the 3 Churches, but the Green was actually pretty crowded with structures for most of it’s existence.
posted by: Pedro Soto on January 23, 2012 4:22pm
PS…. you can actually see two of the buildings, the Methodist Church and the Statehouse in the background of the drawing in the article :)
posted by: Chris on January 23, 2012 4:25pm
Glad to see the fountain in good repair, and that they kept it looking old.
New Haven has another piece of architecture inspired by the same ancient Greek monument—the side door of the federal courthouse. There, the circular plan is just the thing for a 20th century revolving door!
Happy to hear this! These small instances of making things work are contagious and good for the city.
By the way, the churches may have been the only structures on the Green in 1907, but the fountain wasn’t “the first structure on the Green apart from the churches.” The Connecticut State House stood on the Upper Green in the 19th century, and it’s said that the Hopkins School’s first building was on the Green in the 17th century.
posted by: Darnell on January 23, 2012 6:03pm
When I was very young, while waiting for the bus with my mother we used to drink out of the fountain, chase the pigeons, and I hate to admit relieve ourselves in the shrubbery that used to surround the Green…oh happy days!
posted by: anon on January 23, 2012 6:05pm
Finally! Have been waiting for years for this to happen.
posted by: Whatever on January 23, 2012 6:55pm
The Occupy people will be washing their clothes in it.
posted by: first observer on January 23, 2012 10:58pm
Another small nit to pick:
First: “Miller . . . was at pains to point out that the job was not one of restoration. It involved cleaning and stabilization . . .”
Later: “The restoration was a big success in the eyes of Diane Pietrosimone, . . .”
posted by: LaShell on January 24, 2012 10:16am
What a nice story….I have lived in New Haven all my life, the story goes ” if you drink from the water fountain on the green you will live in New Haven all your life” I certainly had my share of water from the fountain.
posted by: Michelle Douglas on January 24, 2012 11:47am
I remember this when I was a little girl in the 60’s. The water flowed then. I live in the South now and seeing this article makes me smile. Bringing New Haven back a project at a time.
posted by: Josiah Brown on January 25, 2012 2:20pm
At least two curriculum units that New Haven Public School teachers developed as Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellows have focused on the history of the New Haven Green, including mention of the 1907 fountain.
The “City Beautiful Movement” in New Haven was treated in an entire seminar that Edward S. Cooke Jr. of the History of Art and American Studies departments led through the Institute in 2008 on New Haven history, art, and material culture: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2008/3/
These and many other interdisciplinary seminars—addressing math and science as well as history and other humanities and arts—were led by Yale faculty members, with New Haven teachers participating as Institute Fellows and developing curriculum units for their students. These and other Institute-developed curricular resources are available for non-commercial, educational purposes.
The Institute’s 2012 seminars include two related to history:
*“Understanding History and Society through Visual Art, 1776-1914,” led by Timothy J. Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of History of Art
*“The Art of Biography,” led by John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett Professor of History (and biographer of George F. Kennan)
A recent New Haven Independent account described the Teachers Institute’s 2012 seminars. The occasion was an event including presentations from the Institute’s Yale faculty seminar leaders and discussion with the prospective Fellows. The article invites prospective Fellows to talk with school Representatives and Contacts across the district. Applications are due to school Representatives on January 31. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/colleagues_discuss_yale-/