Drinking fountain evolved into icon
Monument to city

Friday, June 12, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

What Cincinnati needed was a drinking fountain. What it got was a trademark.

One hot summer day before the Civil War, hardware merchant and teetotaler Henry Probasco confronted a young man staggering drunkenly along Fifth Street. Mr. Probasco lectured the man on the evils of drink, but the man had an answer. There were, he pointed out, scores of "tea houses" where wine and whiskey could be had, but not a single place where a man could get a cold drink of water.

Monument to city

Mr. Probasco and his partner and brother-in-law, Tyler Davidson, began to envision a drinking fountain that would also be a monument to the city. After Mr. Davidson died in 1865, Mr. Probasco went to Europe in search of an appropriate monument that would also serve as a drinking fountain. He wanted something modern, without symbols of ancient mythology, such as Neptune or mermaids.

He found his design in Munich, at the Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry.

Director Ferdinand von Miller showed him a set of drawings, made in about 1840, by August von Kreling of Nuremberg -- a modern design with a Genius of Water standing over groups of people showing the many uses of water.

In a letter to Cincinnati Mayor Charles F. Wilstach, Mr. Probasco offered to give the fountain to the city, then commissioned Mr. von Miller to begin the work. The sculpture was created by Mr. von Kreling, with additional figures created by Mr. von Miller's two sons, Ferdinand and Frederick.

For the bronze, the foundry purchased Danish cannons weighing 24 tons. The stone for the base was Bavarian porphyry.

The fountain was intended for an esplanade on Fifth Street between Walnut and Main streets, but street car tracks could not be moved, so the site was moved a block west, between Vine and Walnut. The city's meat market was in that block, and butchers with stalls there went to court to save their market house.

In February, 1870, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city and the market building was demolished. The cornerstone of the fountain's foundation was laid on July 12, 1871, and the fountain was dedicated on Oct. 6.

Mr. Probasco had estimated the 43-foot-high fountain would cost $30,000. In the end, it cost $120,000 and the esplanade, designed by William Tinsley, cost another $50,000.

The fountain esplanade stood in the middle of the street, flanked by traffic lanes. At each of the four corners were figures of youths riding animals that had streams of water pouring from their mouths. The water was pumped through an underground chamber filled with ice, so it was always cold. Bronze drinking cups hung from chains at the base of each figure.

Heart of the city

From the start, the fountain named after Tyler Davidson became the heart of Cincinnati. Visitors wanted to see three sights here: the beer gardens of Over-the-Rhine, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge and the Tyler Davidson Fountain.

Still today, tourists and conventioneers have their picture taken in front of the fountain.

The fountain's esplanade became Cincinnati's Times Square, the place to be when there was something to celebrate.

When the armistice was signed ending World War I, Cincinnatians flocked to Fountain Square to celebrate. The celebrations were repeated in 1945 on V-E Day (Victory in Europe) and V-J Day (Victory over Japan.) When the Reds won the World Series, Fountain Square was the place to be.

But while the fountain was loved as a symbol, it created a traffic bottleneck in the middle of the city's busiest street. In 1930, the city proposed moving the fountain, either to a city park, to the middle of Central Parkway at Plum Street, or to the plaza in front of the new Union Terminal. Public protest forced the city to drop its plans.

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