ColumbusFountain01

Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain

It has rained, and occasionally stormed, every day for the past couple of weeks here in D.C.  And as indicated by the ominous-looking skies in the background of the photos from this bike ride, it rained again today. But I haven’t let that keep me from my lunchtime bike rides. And on this ride, I went to see the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain, located in the middle of Columbus Plaza (MAP), in front of Union Station in northeast D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood.

The fountain, also sometimes referred to as the Columbus Monument, is a memorial to Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer, navigator, and first colonizer of the Western Hemisphere or “New World.”  It was designed by American sculptor Lorado Zadoc Taft, a distant relative of President William Howard Taft, in collaboration with architect Daniel Burnham. It is a semicircular double-basin fountain with a shaft in the center. The front of the shaft bears a full-length portrait of Christopher Columbus staring south toward the U.S. Capitol Building with his arms crossed in front of him. He is flanked on his right side by an American Indian, who is facing west, representing the “New World.” On Columbus’ left side is an elderly man facing east, representing the “Old World.”  In front of the shaft is a ship prow that features a winged figurehead leading the way.  That represents “discovery.”  And above Columbus is a globe representing the Western hemisphere, with four eagles, one on each corner connected by garland.  Two lions, placed away from the base, guard the left and right sides of the fountain.

In a day the New York Times referred to as “second only to the inauguration of a President,” the fountain was publicly unveiled in a dedication ceremony and parade on June 8, 1912. After the Knights of Columbus’ successful lobbying for the sculpture which had begun a half a dozen years earlier, the festivities at the dedication ceremony included approximately 50,000 members of the organization. The ceremony was presided over by then Secretary of State Philander Knox, with invocation given by Father Thomas Shahan, the Rector of The Catholic University of America.  Other notable participants included Italian Ambassador Cusania Confalonieri, Apostolic Delegate to United States Archbishop Giovanni Vincenzo Cardinal Bonzano and other Catholic Church notables, as well as President Taft.  It also included 15,000 troops, 2,000 motor cars, a 21 gun salute, and elaborate horse-drawn floats depicting noteworthy incidents in Columbus’ life. And it was all viewed by around 150,000 spectators.

During his formal address at the dedication ceremony, President Taft said, “It is most difficult for us by any effort of the imagination to take in the problem which Columbus solved.” And as I visited the fountain today, I contemplated that statement. In this age of technology-assisted navigation and easy travel, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend the both the difficult conditions and the uncertainty of the outcome of Columbus’ journeys. Not only did he not have GPS or satellite imagery, Columbus didn’t even have a map.  That’s because no maps existed at that time of where he was going.  All he had was a compass and an astrolabe.  His boat actually started to fall apart on his first voyage.  They nearly ran out of food and water, facing starvation and dehydration.  In fact, Columbus wrote in his diary in 1492, “We ate biscuit which was a powder swarming with worms. It smelt of rats. … We ate sawdust from the boards.”   They also faced the threat of many diseases, and many people died on the ship.  They encountered severe storms and weather challenges as well.  And with all these problems, his crew not only wanted to turn back, they wanted to kill him.  So next time you’re headed through Union Station or Reagan National Airport on your way somewhere, stop and think about how good you’ve got it.

ColumbusFountain04      ColumbusFountain02      ColumbusFountain03
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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Comments
  1. Great background information on the fountain. In addition, one is saddened by the state of neglect of this fountain which hasn’t had water flowing for at least several years, is often littered with trash, and seems to be in a steady state of decline. Although Union Staion itself is undergoing a major renovation (under the aegis of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation and AMTRAK), the fountain is the responsibility of the National Park Service and apparently is not included in the project. NPS, having been subjected to numerous budget cuts, can’t afford to rehabilitate many of the smaller sites for which it has been assigned responsibility. An alternative model, the Mellon Fountain across the street from the National Gallery was finally restored this year when responsibility for its care was transferred from the NPS to the National Gallery.

    Liked by 1 person

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