Savannah has many beautiful fountains, but none is so striking nor memorable as the one in Forsyth Park. The view of Forsyth Park’s fountain – seen at the end of a wide walk lined with moss-hung oaks – is one of the best-known sights in Savannah, and a favorite stop for tourists and visitors to the city.
The history of the fountain stretches back to the late 1850s, when the first major phase of the improvement of Forsyth Park began. However, although the presence of the fountain dates from this time, its overall character does not.
Perhaps surprisingly, the present-day appearance of the famous Forsyth Park Fountain was not arrived at until 1935, the culmination of numerous additions and alterations over a period of almost a century.
By mid century, Bull Street was Savannah’s most prestigious boulevard, chosen as the site of grand monuments and for the homes of its wealthiest citizens. The city’s white elite – adopting the European tradition of the “promenade” (the French term for both a leisurely walk and the place where it is taken) – took daily strolls down Bull Street toward what was then an area of shady pines just beyond the city limits.
The creation of Forsyth Park in 1851 reflected a desire to set aside space for a park in the newly laid out southern stretch of the city and the recognition of this existing recreational habit.
France, at that time, was a nation much admired by Savannah’s elite. When the city decided, in the late 1850s, to improve its new park, it did so with French parks and squares, as well as the idea of the boulevard-promenade, in mind. Inspired by the example of the fountains of Paris, Savannah resolved to obtain a fountain of its own for Forsyth Park, which would serve several purposes.
Firstly, the water and its spray would provide a much-needed cooling factor during hot summer afternoons in the park.
Secondly, it would serve as a decorative centerpiece for Forsyth Park in keeping with the then-emerging fashion for large items of ornamental ironwork as aids to domestic and civic beautification.
Thirdly, the fountain would provide a terminal focus of the Bull Street boulevard, of which the main path through Forsyth Park provided a continuation.
In March of 1858, Savannah’s council selected a committee (composed of Mayor Richard Wayne and Aldermen George A Gordon and Noah B Knapp) to choose a suitable fountain to complement the other improvements planned for the park.
The structure they chose was an ornate, cast iron fountain, its two tiers topped by a figure of a robed woman holding a staff. The basins are decorated with a relief leaf pattern, the upper tier more elaborately embellished with a scene of wading birds and rushes reminiscent of Georgia’s lowcountry landscape.
The fountain as originally designed and installed incorporates four spouting triton figures carrying shell horns (representing the mythological Greek messenger of the sea, half man and half fish), positioned on blocks at the immediate base of its lower pedestal. These have since been repositioned in the basin.
The fountain was put in place in July 1858, and turned on on August 1, though not without incident. When the water was turned on, the citizens in attendance were dismayed to discover that the fountain spouted with entirely too much vigor, soaking the nearest members of the assembled crowd.
The cause of the too-strong spouting – news of which was received, with some hilarity, across the South – was the high pressure provided by the city’s new waterworks. A much larger basin was constructed (at a cost of $1500) to accommodate the area over which the fountain sprayed.
Brick paving, possibly to cut down on mud from wind-blown water, was installed around the fountain in 1860, and its ornamental perimeter iron railing within the next decade. The spouting swans in the basin and the urns at the pedestal base were added in 1870.
The fountain’s characteristic spray effect dates from 1873, introduced then as a water conservation measure. For many decades the fountain ran only in the afternoons, as it lacked a recirculator that made it reasonable to run it all the time without excessive water wastage. Full time operation of the fountain awaited the installation of a recirculating pump, added at some time around the 1930s.
The bright, white appearance of the fountain – providing an effective contrast to the dark foliage of the surrounding trees and in season, to pink azaleas – is also not authentic to the fountain’s design.
Over its 160-year history, the fountain has been re-painted many times, and initially in much darker colors. It was painted to resemble Siena marble (a veined orange color) in 1870, and subsequently in various dark colors through to the 20th century. The fountain was first painted in its present-day white in 1935.
Since then, several renovations of the fountain have replaced or repaired its elements – a 1960 renovation; replacement of three vandalised tritons in 1974; and replacement of the female figure in 1977 – but there have been no substantial changes to its layout or appearance (two attempts to restore the fountain to its original design – repainting it in its historic dark color scheme and restoring the fountain’s spray to a more typical flow – were staunchly resisted by Savannah residents).
The only noticeable change came with the fountain’s complete restoration in 1988. Costing close to $200,000, the restoration was financed in part by the city and in part by private citizens. A series of signature bricks was installed at this time around the perimeter of the fountain, inscribed with the names of those who contributed to the project.
The origins of the design of the Forsyth Park Fountain are not entirely clear, and a degree of misinformation, some from official sources and some not, has been generated on this topic.
The first misunderstanding, still given an occasional airing by some tour guides, is that it was ordered from the Sears catalogue, famous staple of the early history of American mail-order shopping.
The fountain was not purchased from the Sears catalogue, and could not have been. Richard Sears, co-founder of Sears, Roebuck & Co, was not even born until 1863, at which time the fountain had already been in place several years. He and Alvah Roebuck (born in 1864) founded their company in 1886; its first catalogue went out two years later.
In fact, the fountain was ordered – at a cost of $2200 (equivalent to around $65,000 today) – from Janes, Beebe & Co’s Illustrated Catalogue of Ornamental Iron Work, in which it was known as Model No 5.
Janes, Beebe & Co, later known as Janes & Kirtland Co, was a leading New York iron foundry, which also supplied ornamental ironwork for the US Capitol dome, the Library of Congress and other government buildings of note, among other important commissions.
The second inaccuracy in the history of the fountain is the belief that its design was a copy of the fountains in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, an idea that has figured through much of its history.
The name of the person who designed the fountain for Janes, Beebe & Co is not known. The story goes that the fountain was copied from a model displayed by the foundry of Frenchman Jean-Pierre-Victor André at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. That work, in turn, is said to be based upon the design of Paris’s Fontaines de la Concorde, two maritime-and-riverine-inspired fountains created for the Place de la Concorde in 1840 by Jacques Ignace Hittorff.
Savannahians believed for some time that their fountain was a direct copy of those in Paris. The city even placed iron informational plaques to this effect in 1915, in response to frequent inquiries from visitors as to the history and inspiration for the piece.
It was a new history of the Janes, Beebe & Co foundry that revealed Model No 5 to be a copy of the André foundry’s fountain instead.
André’s foundry was very well known in mid-19th-century Europe, and had an important role in popularizing the concept of using cast iron, rather than the traditional – and considerably more expensive – marble or bronze, in the production of fountains, statues and other large ornamental pieces.
The output of the André foundry received a large audience at the Great Exhibition. Coming at the time of a craze for ornamental ironwork made possible by the material’s affordability compared to individually-crafted stone, his works were in all probability widely copied from.
Although it is now established that the design of Model No 5 was drawn in imitation of André’s fountain as shown at the Great Exhibition, no pictorial record of that intermediate fountain has been found. The degree to which the two fountains resembled each other, and the question of whether André’s fountain was credibly modeled after either of the Fontaines de la Concorde, remains unverifiable.
Savannah’s fountain may well have been indirectly inspired by the fountains of the Place de la Concorde, but it is certainly not a close copy: barring the presence of triton figures in their basins and some variety of duck on the upper column, the resemblance between the fountains is slight.
As the Forsyth Park Fountain was selected from a manufacturer’s catalogue, rather than being an individually-commissioned artwork, it is not entirely unique. Other cities could – and did – choose the same model for their own streets and parks.
Three other versions of “Savannah’s” fountain are known of at present, though they are not identical. Savannah modified its own fountain over a period of decades to reach its current appearance, and so too did these other cities. Though they are all recognizably the same original piece, the three fountains differ notably in their details.
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Fountain in Poughkeepsie, NY, most closely resembles the fountain in Forsyth Park. The fountain, located in a small triangular park on Little Market Street, was dedicated in 1870 in memory of that city’s Civil War dead.
Although painted white, like Savannah’s fountain, Poughkeepsie’s closely follows the catalogue’s design, with the tritons in their original position, no additional figures, and the intended pattern of water flow. See the fountain on Google Street View
Another copy of the Forsyth Park Fountain is in Madison, Indiana. Its Broadway Fountain, located in Broadway Fountain Park, was originally purchased for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It was installed in its current Madison location in 1886, having been given to the city as a gift by a local chapter of the Odd Fellows two years previously.
The fountain was entirely reconstructed (in bronze) in the 1970s. Like the Poughkeepsie fountain it still resembles the original design, though with a greenish color and a different setting – the rim of its basin decorated with a number of ornamental urns – to distinguish it from the others. See on Street View
Another version is in Cusco (also spelled Cuzco), Peru. The Cusco fountain, providing the focal point of that city’s Plaza de Armas, was installed at some time in or after the 1870s.
Instead of the uppermost female figure of the Savannah, Madison and Poughkeepsie fountains, Cusco’s is topped with a much larger statue of an Inca, added in 2011 (in the place of an earlier statue of an American Indian warrior equipped with bow and arrow) as part of a politically-contentious remodeling intended to draw attention to the city’s heritage as former capital of the Inca Empire.
Each year, the body of the fountain, currently painted in green, white and gold, is covered with a mock-rock facade for the duration of Cusco’s Inti Raymi, or Sun Festival. See on Street View