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

Service to Others: The Legacy You Leave

Yesterday I attended the ceremony for the opening of the final phase of the Georgetown Waterfront Park, a project which has been in the works for almost 30 years.  In what was formerly a derelict, industrial wasteland, and before that a thriving port from colonial times, residents of the village now have a beautiful, landscaped public place in which to stroll, sit and relax, stretching from the Key Bridge to the Swedish Embassy, and connecting pedestrians to and from Georgetown to the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Memorial, and beyond.   And yet the man whom all universally acknowledge to have been the driving force behind the project could not be there to celebrate this achievement.  This fact ought to give us an opportunity to reflect on the point of service to others, and how we measure our own accomplishments.

Senator Charles Percy (R) served the people of Illinois in the U.S. Senate from 1966 through 1985,  settling into a beautiful house in Georgetown and raising his family here.  For decades he worked with the community, private land owners, and government to help turn the Georgetown waterfront from an embarrassment to a public space which mixes both green and hardscape elements into a pleasingly civilized whole.  If you want to see what this area used to look like prior to its rebirth, rent the 1987 movie “Suspect”, starring Cher, Dennis Quaid and John Mahoney, and you will see in one of the opening sequences the discovery of a murder in a tangle of Georgetown riverfront parking lots and industrial buildings, where today there are cyclists and joggers exercising, dogs taking their constitutionals, and families picnicking.

Unfortunately Senator Percy has suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years, and he could not be at the dedication ceremony last evening.  Instead his daughter, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, wife of Senator John Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, attended along with members of the family and spoke on behalf of her father’s vision.  In an address punctuated by emotion, and one which I suspect virtually everyone assembled, including yours truly, would have found impossible to make under the circumstances, Mrs. Rockefeller explained that her father was gravely ill and in hospital, and that her siblings were flying in to see him, so without directly saying so the implication was that he will probably not be with us for very much longer.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Rockefeller managed to get through her remarks, and celebrate the spirit of public service which her father embodied, in order to provide a great benefit to his community.  She spoke of her father’s love of the beautiful public parks of his native Chicago, his equal love of his adopted home of Georgetown, as well as his enthusiasm for being on and in the water whenever possible.  And at the conclusion of her address, which must have been incredibly difficult to get through, she received a standing ovation, not only for her words, of course, but also as a tribute to Senator Percy himself.

The way in which we measure our achievements is not, oftentimes, something which we can gauge by seeing our goals realized. Moses, after all, got to see the Promised Land of Israel, but did not enter it.  Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but only lived long enough to see the completion of the drum which supports the dome itself, while JFK encouraged men to go the Moon, but never lived to see that momentous event in human history.  And as the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí replied, when asked why his monumental Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was taking so long to build – and which, by the way, is still under construction, nearly a century after his death – he left such matters up to the Almighty, noting, “My client is not in a hurry.”

As I listened to the speakers who followed Mrs. Rockefeller, I watched some children playing in the new fountain that marks the entrance to the park.  The bright, late-summer afternoon sun glinted everywhere, as they laughed and ran through the pulsating archways of water, oblivious to the portentous words being spoken around them.  It struck me that this, a childhood remembrance of play, sunshine, and the great joy of being alive, may be the real legacy Senator Percy has left for the people of the village, as well as those who visit us, and for all to take away with them.

No matter how lofty your goals, gentle reader, it is entirely possible that you yourself may not live long enough to see all of them, particularly the grander ones, come to fruition.  That does not mean, however, that you should not attempt to reach those goals. Our society today often encourages instant gratification over patience and perseverance, but while some things need to be remedied as quickly as possible, other times we must allow that to do something right, we must often be willing to stick to it, even if it seems the project will never be finished. It is in the example of selflessness and dedication to others, that human beings can provide truly lasting legacies.

Children playing in the new fountain at the Georgetown Waterfront Park