109 years ago today, President Taft joined local officials to dedicate Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Fountain in Arsenal Park (as featured above). The fountain was funded by the Dolly Madison Chapter of the Daughters of the War of 1812 and placed in the newly (1907) formed Arsenal Park to commemorate the fallen and help convey the history of the park, made from land that comprised part of the Allegheny Arsenal.
The fountain is an exceptional piece of Pittsburgh's history (has anything else in the city been dedicated by a sitting president?), but its had a complicated past that's left it in fairly rough shape. Despite being welcomed into the park by throngs of people, by all accounts it led a rather solitary existence for the first few decades of its existence. The 1910 photograph of Arsenal Park depicts the fountain in its original location in the southwestern portion of the park near where the tennis courts now stands. Its proximity to the nearby hospital provided patients with access to fresh water (remember, this was the height of the era of natural springs in Pittsburgh) and an opportunity for a bit of ambulation and fresh air.
As time progressed, natural springs fell victim to an intentional push by officials to have more people drink increasingly safe tap water. And although we don't know exactly when the spring was decommissioned, by 1937 the entire fountain had been removed from its based and relocated across the park. Its new location, in at the crux of the former magazine building, it still continued to serve its original function, a drinking fountain.
The fountain was moved again during the renovation of the magazine and as a result lost its base and its free-standing independence. In 1941, the fountain suffered the last indignity. In a letter to City Council, the Dolly Madison Chapter of the Daughters of the War of 1812 demanded to know why the fountain had been shut off and insisted on its restoration. But to no avail. The fountain's distinctive basin was removed and the semi-circular opening was filled in, obscuring the monument's history, origin, and function for decades.
The fountain's had a hard life but we're happy to report that its future is looking a bit brighter. As part of the 106 process for the Arsenal 201 development we asked Milhaus Ventures to commit funds towards the fountain's restoration. They've done just that and the City's Department of Public Works is currently assessing the feasibility of conservation work on the memorial with the hope that the character-defining basin be recreated.
But the story may not end there. Several years ago the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy completed a Master Plan for Arsenal Park, which called for the full restoration of the fountain (plumbing included). As part of this plan, there is a possibility to reexamine the location of the fountain with a bit more discussion with community stakeholders. Here at Preservation Pittsburgh, we're hoping to see it make a round trip and end back from where it once belonged.
There's more conversations to have but we're thrilled that this important piece of Pittsburgh's past is on the path to a brighter future. On that, stay tuned...