Of all the monuments, statues, memorials, and other interesting places and events in D.C., some of my favorite destinations on my lunchtime D.C. bike rides, especially during the warm months of summer, are public fountains. And there are many of them in the National Capitol City from which to choose. One of the most famous is officially named “Fountain of Light and Water,” but is more commonly referred to as the Bartholdi Fountain. Located at the corner of Independence Avenue and First Street (MAP) in The United States Botanic Garden in southwest D.C., it was the destination for this ride.
The fountain is referred to as The Bartholdi Fountain because it was created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who is best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. The fountain is based on Classical and Renaissance sculpture, and is composed of a series of basins, supported by sculptures of classical figures. The fountain was cast in Paris by A. Durenne Foundry, and the cast iron is coated with bronze. Standing in the center of a circular marble pool, the fountain weighs 30,440 pounds, stands 30 feet high, and has three caryatid figures 11 feet in height.
The three-level fountain is topped by a mural crown resembling a crenellated city wall. Water spills from the crown over three youthful tritons playfully holding seaweed and splashes into the upper basin. Twelve lamps surround the basin. The crown appears to be held by caryatid figures depicting nereids, or sea nymphs, standing on a triangular pedestal with an ornamental design of seas shells and coral. Three reptiles are positioned at the pedestal’s corners, and spout water while supporting the fountain’s lower vasque. Water spouts from a crown at the top, cascades down into the smaller vasque, and then down into the larger vasque before spilling into the main basin.
The cast-iron fountain was made for the first official World’s Fair in the United States, also known as the Centennial Exposition, which was held in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the United States. After the conclusion of the Centennial Exposition, Bartholdi offered the statue for sale for $12,000. However, he could not find a buyer. The following year, at the suggestion of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed the Capitol Building grounds, the U.S. Congress offered him $6,000 for the fountain, half his original asking price. Bartholdi begrudgingly agreed, and in 1877 the fountain was placed at the base of Capitol Hill on what used to be Botanic Garden grounds. It was removed and placed in storage in 1926 in order to facilitate completion of The George Gordon Meade Memorial, and for landscaping improvements around the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. Then in 1932, the sculpture was placed at its current location in the United States Botanic Garden, within the grounds of the United States Capitol Building.
Since the bike rides I write about in this blog take place during my lunchtime breaks at work, I did not visit the fountain at night. But if you are in the city after dark, I highly recommend a visit because to really appreciate the beauty of the Bartholdi Fountain, you’ll need to see it when the cascade of water is illuniated after the sun sets. Originally designed and fitted with gas lamps, it was one of the first monuments in D.C. to be lit at night. Other than the fact that the lamps were later converted to electricity in 1915, the Barholdi Fountain remains the same popular evening destination that it has been since the 1880s.