Give Us Back Our Fountain

Via a tip from Mr. Matthews at the Georgetown Metropolitan, I learned this morning about a beautiful piece of public sculpture which used to grace the streets of Georgetown but which is now in a somewhat sorry state.  I am therefore going to start whistling in the wind and suggest that the powers that be not only restore this object to its original appearance, but also that it be placed back in Georgetown where it originally stood.  Perhaps this will be an unpopular opinion among my fellow residents of the village, but as the expression of an unpopular opinion has never stopped me before, I see no reason to begin embracing reticence now.

Much as I love Georgetown, the 18th century former village where I have lived on and off for over 16 years, from an urban planning perspective it does have a few drawbacks.  Having been laid out in the Age of Reason, it bears a reasonably logical grid pattern, but because Georgetown was not a particularly important place at its founding, it has something of a utilitarian layout.  There are quirky little access alleys and side streets to interest the urban explorer, some beautiful estates with gardens, and even a brand new public park where once we had an industrial wasteland.

However unlike most European urban districts – and bear in mind that technically, at the time of its founding, Georgetown was a European colony – we do not really  have any public squares in the neighborhood.  In a typical 18th century European market town like Georgetown once was, the central market square would probably have some sort of a monument, and there would be other small squares around the rest of the town with similar monuments or fountains, depending on the wealth of the locale.  While the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown is referred to as a “square”, named for a police officer who was killed there a few years ago, it is merely that – an intersection.  Francis Scott Key Park, close to the Key Bridge, is only a park because some fool tore down Francis Scott Key’s house, and while it is a pleasant park it was not part of the original design of the town for this parcel to be a public park.

With the imposition of Pierre L’Enfant’s grid pattern, the eastern edge of Georgetown gained a few of those oddly-shaped, triangular parcels of land that dot the landscape throughout Washington, where diagonal avenues intersect with the strict grid pattern of the main streets.  And on one of these triangular parcels stood a large fountain dating back to at least the 1880’s, as reported in the article linked to above, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue, M Street, and 28th Streets, NW.  The fountain was subsequently moved to a now-demolished traffic circle in another part of the city, before it was removed and abandoned.

It is interesting to note in an article published in 1901 that this large fountain, currently rusting away in the woods, was replaced by the Georgetowners of that day with a smaller one.  I would be curious to learn where this smaller fountain ended up – perhaps some of my fellow villagers would know.  There is certainly no trace of it, now.

In any case, it seems hard to believe that the small, triangular-shaped parcel in the middle of the intersection of 28th, M and Pennsylvania, which is currently a collection of plantings, was the original location for a sculpture that was described as having once been among the largest public fountains in Washington.  Directly opposite this parcel is a triangular point of land that serves today as a small public park, next to a gas station.  I imagine – though freely admit I may be wrong – that this would have been a more likely spot, given that it is at the sort of unofficial gateway bridges over Rock Creek, which separates Georgetown from the rest of the city.

Said park is where Georgetown sets up one of the two village Christmas trees every winter, but it is a space which otherwise goes largely unused.  Apart from a ring of plantings along a low, brick wall, it is basically a weedy, cobblestoned, windswept spot, with a couple of benches and little else.  If it is occupied at all, which it is rarely, it is usually by some vagrant who does not mind the incessant noise from all of the traffic converging at the spot.

Wouldn’t this be a lovely place to put the old fountain, one wonders? Since no one really uses this space, anyway, and it was a part of the village landscape for so many years, it would be nice to see it brought back close to its original site.   And because it would be set back from the road, there would be no danger of vehicles hitting it, as there would be if the fountain was placed on the traffic island. Moreover, I would think the sound of the falling water would do at least something to mitigate the noise from the passing vehicles, and provide a pleasant place to rest, at least for the pedestrians and shoppers/tourists who often enter Georgetown on foot from this direction, walking from the Foggy Bottom Metro station several blocks further east.

Again, this may be a completely impossible thing to advocate, but a conservative semi-reactionary like yours truly likes nothing more than pursuing such things – for sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and because of such efforts such ideas really do come to pass, from time to time.  At the very least, those of us who care about the village, and about architecture, history, and city planning, can at least talk about this, in meetings, in print, and so on, and see whether something can be done.  For a neighborhood which cares so much about its history, particularly with the growth of interest in historic renovation and preservation over the past 40 years, I am very surprised that Georgetown has not done anything about putting one or the other of its historic fountains back into this space up until now.


View of the triangular parcel in Georgetown where the fountain once stood

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3 thoughts on “Give Us Back Our Fountain

  1. Pingback: Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, 9/26-9/30/11 | Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Well this one grabbed my eye, for the chance to go over old maps! The original fountain was indeed in that small triangle of land, and not where the gas station and adjoining park now are. At the time, that block seems to have been more heavily built up, and the current park was the Peck Memorial Chapel (Presbyterian, it seems). You can see the fountain marked on “Baist’s real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia,” volume 3 (1911), plate 1 (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3851bm.gct00133c)

    I agree that the present park would be the better place to have the fountain now, if it were to be returned or a new one built. The old location would create too dangerous a location for pedestrians.

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