Inside genius of water, it rains

Saturday, June 13, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

From the forklift operator to the woman in Mount Lookout and the employees of the bank on the square, they want their fountain saved.
Cliff Radel explores the fountain's underbelly with Joel Koopman, left, of the city's facility management division.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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"You can't let this fountain fall down," said Robert Murray, a forklift operator at Procter & Gamble's Ivorydale plant.

"Look at her. She's beautiful," he said Friday morning and stepped back on Fountain Square's plaza to admire the Tyler Davidson Fountain. His gaze stopped at the bronze lady, the Genius of Water, atop the fountain.

"I'd be glad to volunteer to save her," he said. "Anything for the fountain. She's family."

As was first reported in Friday's Enquirer, the fountain is falling apart. Cracks line the bronze skin and fractures weaken the skeleton of the city's most potent symbol. Left in this condition, the 127-year-old fountain will eventually collapse.

To save the fountain, the lady on the square needs a $1.5 million face lift. The city plans to start raising funds in September. My Friday column suggested the people of Cincinnati rally to pay for the repairs with private donations.

"To The People Of Cincinnati," reads the bronze medallion at the base of the lady's feet. She's ours to care for.

A roll of caution tape sits on a statue.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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"The fountain is Cincinnati," said Ruth Upson of Mount Lookout. "When I'm downtown, I always visit the fountain. It's like seeing an old friend.

"I want to make a donation," she added. "Where can I send the money?"

As of Friday, you can send your pennies or dollars to the new Tyler Davidson Fountain Restoration Fund, in care of any location of the Fifth Third Bank.

"We saw the articles and wanted to start the ball rolling now," said Christopher Binkert, Fifth Third vice president. The bank opened the fund Friday with a $50,000 donation in the name of its 3,800 area employees. Fifth Third hopes to issue souvenir receipts for restoration donations as early as Tuesday.

"The fountain is in our front yard," the banker noted. "We want it restored for the future."

Trouble inside

Restoration won't be easy. As I found out during a Friday tour under and inside the fountain, the problems are severe and the damage from corrosion is extensive.

There's only one way to get into the center of the fountain: Crawl on your hands and knees through a dark, wet, narrow tunnel.

Sheets of mushy cardboard and soggy wooden pallets line the tunnel's floor. They're in place to keep repairmen from getting any wetter than they need to.

There is only one light. And it's at the end of the tunnel.

There's more light when you reach the fountain's hollow center. That's from the cracks. Slender shafts of daylight crisscross the fountain's center shaft. Some cracks, once filled by strips of caulking, are big enough to stick your fingers into. Other cracks are just wide enough to accept coins visitors toss into the fountain from the outside.

The center shaft can hold four men, but only if they like to be as close as ballroom dancers.

You can stand up in the shaft. But watch your head. Deteriorating pipes and rusty beams lurk overhead.

On the north side, one of the main support beams is propped up by a 6-by-6 wooden shaft. The beam is so rusty, chips flake off with the flick of a fingernail. This temporary repair keeps the fountain from listing to the north and further cracking its bronze base.

During my tour, the fountain was turned off. That was good. The fountain's skin is so cracked that when the water flows from the Genius of Water's hands and streams of water shoot up from the cannons in the fountain's basin, it rains inside the structure's hollow shaft.

Even without the water flowing, the fountain's insides were constantly dripping.

"It's always wet in here," said my tour guide, Joel Koopman of the city's facility management division. Carefully crawling across the gravel-strewn base of one of the fountain's concrete supports, he added: "It's like a cave."

It smells like a cave, too. Wet, dank and moldy.

Also like a cave, surfaces are dotted with stalagmites and stalactites. They're caused by water getting into the fountain and leaching chemicals from the vertical shafts of the fountain's concrete supports. The deposits drip off the fountain's rock-carved base. The stone used to be black. Now, it's white.

The concrete shafts are in even worse shape. They crumble to the touch. Reach up to grab them for support and you come up with a handful of sand and gravel.

After emerging from beneath the fountain, I sat down on the edge of the tunnel's opening and came face to face with John Kelly of Price Hill.

The high school science and math teacher had come to the square to eat lunch. He saw Friday's headline about the fountain falling apart.

"That can't happen," he told me. "Our fountain is like the Eiffel Tower. That tower is a city's symbol. The people of Paris would never let it fall down."

Call it a hunch, but I have the same feeling about folks around here. The people of Cincinnati won't let that happen to our fountain.

Cliff Radel's column appears in the Enquirer's Metro section Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.