Our Nation's Capital Is Rich With Fountains, but Why Are So Many Bone Dry?

Fully functional fountains, such as Senate Fountain, are an increasingly rare sight in Washington D.C. as the National Park Service struggles to maintain the city's wealth of aging and high-maintenance water features. (Photo: NCinDC/flickr)

Washington, D.C., can’t compare to Rome when it comes to iconic water features. Still, there’s no arguing that the nation’s capital — overstuffed with soaring monuments, evocative statuary and more than a few pieces of historic architecture that burble, shoot and spray — is a world-class fountain town.

And although Washington's wealth of fountains — there are more than 60 of them, including decorative ponds and pools found on and around the National Mall — often play second fiddle to tourist-luring works of “dry” architecture, their appeal is indisputable.

As the Washington Post’s Steve Hendrix recently detailed in a dispatch introducing readers to the “water whisperers” of the National Park Service, the herculean effort required to keep these fountains flowing during “fountain-fighting season” (aka summer) is also indisputable.

Dupont Circle Fountain, Washington, D.C.
Dupont Circle Fountain, Washington, D.C. (Photo: NCinDC/flickr)

In recent years, fountain-tending park service employees have found themselves engaged in an uphill battle against “19th-century plumbing, balky pumps and an $850 million maintenance backlog" among other things. After all, there’s nothing as disheartening as a grand public fountain sans water. As Hendrix aptly puts it, “dry fountains are the empty storefronts of public architecture, depressing testaments to civic shortcomings.”

This is particularly true in Washington.

Whereas a defunct water feature in any other city might not be so loaded with symbolism, a dry fountain in the capital can send a particularly potent message. One would imagine that the fountains of Washington should be powerful and constantly flowing — a sign of vitality and strength.

“There’s a statement of public welfare in having a fountain,” Thomas Luebke, Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, explains to the Post. “It speaks to the idea of common good and a competent government. When you have an empty pool that is supposed to be a central feature, the place loses its soul.”

Columbus Fountain, Union Station, Washington D.C.
Not the greatest first impression: The Columbus Fountain at Union Station has been dry for decades. (Photo: David/flickr)

As time marches on, D.C.'s fountains overflow with problems

The first public fountain that many visitors to the nation’s capital first lay eyes upon is long defunct. Columbus Fountain at Union Station, a dramatic double-basin beauty dedicated in 1912, has been dry for over a decade. Most people don't even realize it's a fountain. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1968, Columbus Fountain is awaiting a $10 million restoration.

Numerous other fountains scattered across the District — roughly half of them — are in desperate need of repair. They include the Dupont Circle Fountain, a rare non-equestrian Civil War monument dedicated in 1921 that was restored in the 1990s but now finds itself in a precarious tilting position. The algae-plagued fountains at the U.S. Navy Memorial require new strainers and impeller motors, the latter of which increases the pressure and flow of water. And the long-beleaguered cauldron-fountains on Theodore Roosevelt Island underwent extensive repairs a few years back and now suffer from damaged grates.

Much of the repair work in recent years has focused on modernizing older fountains erected during an era when water conservation was a non-issue. Today, these grand old water-wasters now boast recirculation systems.

“Each one of these things is unique,” Jeff Gowen, facilities manager for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, tells the Post. “They never go away, but they do get to a point where we can no longer operate them.”

Dry fountains at Theodore Roosevelt Island
Dry fountains at Theodore Roosevelt Island. (Photo: Tim Evanson/flickr)

Realizing that the Park Service is dealing with limited resources, local conservation groups and other organizations have stepped up to breathe new life into dead fountains. For example, The Andrew W. Mellon Fountain (pictured below) was brought back online last year after a nearly decade-long dry spell thanks to fundraising efforts spearheaded by the National Gallery of Art.

Although minor, one long-dry fountain that’s climbed to the top of the Park Service's priority list is the equestrian memorial of Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar that stands in a pocket park located directly opposite the Department of the Interior. As the Post explains, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a view of the barren fountain from his office, which has reportedly prompted him to take special interest in the revitalization of busted and long-dry fountains in the capital.

No one is entirely sure when the six-jet memorial of Bolívar was last wet. National Parks Service plumber Tony Truesdale hopes that a slew of recent repairs — including new pumps, clean pipes and the draining and cleaning of the muck-filled pool, which until recently was "basically a wildlife refuge" — doesn't just please those passing down Virginia Ave NW. There's also his recently installed boss to think of.

Andrew Mellon Memorial Fountain, Washington, D.C.
Also known as the 'Zodiac Fountain,' the Andrew W. Mellon Fountain (1952) is a bronze-and-granite tribute to the famous banker, politician and founder of the National Gallery of Art. (Photo: Cliff/flickr)

“It’s beautiful when you get everything going,” Truesdale tells the Post. “But something else crops up every day. Nobody likes it when they go down.”

The aristocratic military engineer behind Washington's master plan, French-born Pierre Charles L'Enfant, specifically designed the capital to be a town replete with exquisite fountains a la his beloved Versailles. And for the most part, his vision was realized. However, the 21st century custodians of the L'Enfant Plan are embracing a fountain-wary agenda, asking the designers of newly proposed memorials to think long and hard about water features and other potentially expensive and hard-to-maintain bells and whistles, no matter how aesthetically pleasing they may be.

"Every time we have a new memorial, there is that discussion, and every time we have that discussion, we will discourage water features,” Catherine Dewey, chief of resource management for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, told the Post last year.

Photo of Dupont Circle Fountain:NCinDC/flickr; Photo of fountain at Theodore Roosevelt Island: Anokarina/flickr