This month, most of the Pittsburgh’s iconic water features gushed to life for the first time this year. Fountain designs range from ornate Renaissance-style to modern, marble staircases. They greet park visitors and provide moments of tranquility among downtown skyscrapers.
Good Question! listener Ben Mall enjoys the region’s fountains, but wondered about an unusually named feature in North Park. It’s hidden near a small, shallow creek off Kummer Road and looks like it’s straight out of a science fiction story. The rocks that make up the formation are covered in moss and starting to turn green.
“From the outside you can see it’s into the hillside. There’s a stone arch that literally says ‘Fountain of Youth’ on it,” Mall said. “What exactly is that area?”
A “Fountain of Youth” elicits ideas of perpetual childhood and adolescent vigor. But unfortunately, drinking from this fountain would likely result in an upset stomach. The water that once trickled from the formation was found to be contaminated in the 1950s.
It takes some hiking to reach the spot, but that’s just fine with Trail Pittsburgh vice president Mary Lynn Marsico, who expertly maneuvered through leaves and sticks, stepping on flat stones to cross the little stream. She said the attraction was a big deal when it was first built.
“People came from all over to see it,” Marsico said. “[The Works Progress Administration] were the ones that had built it. They wanted this to look like a Roman coliseum-type of thing.”
The Works Progress Administration was set up as part of the New Deal after the Great Depression to help spur economic activity. Ornate water features like the “Fountain of Youth” were included in the original designs for Pittsburgh’s elaborate parks system in the early 20th century. These parks were created as an escape for residents from the city’s smog and smoke.
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Curator Susan Rademacher works to revitalize and maintain city fountains and has written a book about the restoration of Mellon Square downtown. She said each feature fits into a larger concept.
“It’s important to us to understand what was intended for people to experience,” Rademacher said. “[For them to ask] what was the purpose of this fountain?”
Fountains are hard to maintain and often are the first to be neglected in a green space. Rademacher said after WWII, resources in cities shifted to more recreational programs and many fountains were shut off and converted into flowerbeds.
“I often compare fountains to the canary in the mine because when you see something that looks like it was a fountain and it's a flowerbed, you know there's been a breakdown in institutional memory and standards of care in resources available,” Rademacher said.
When the Conservancy does decide to take on a fountain project, they frequently have to re-plumb the entire system, as the original wasn’t built to recirculate water. That was the case for Pittsburgh’s oldest fountain, the Allegheny Commons Northeast Fountain. It sits on the corner of E. North and Cedar avenues on the North Side, and was constructed as a visual focal point for the park in 1868 before falling into disrepair. The Conservancy and other partners spent about $2.5 million to restore it, basing the new design on historic photographs and postcards.
“It's important to not try to copy what was there historically unless you really know what it was,” Rademacher said.
In addition to the Northeast Fountain, the Department of Public Works maintains others, including the Joy of Life in East Liberty, A Song to Nature in Oakland’s Schenley Plaza, the Walled Garden in Mellon Park, the fountain at the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill, the Highland Park entry garden fountain and the two in Mellon Square downtown. Director Mike Gable confirmed that the water features require almost daily maintenance, from back washing to cleaning debris to chemical treatments. Still, he said, it’s worth it for the department because of the value the fountains add to the region.
“All of them are unique,” he said. “People just love to sit around a fountain, listen and watch the water.”
Rademacher said there are psychological benefits to being near fountains. Evaporating air lowers the temperature around a water feature, which cools down passersby. Plus the sound of splashing water can be comforting.
“The beauty of watching water move is an extremely relaxing experience for people,” Rademacher said. “It registers with your blood pressure and your peace of mind.”
She said there are a few city fountains “in waiting” for restoration: a War of 1812 monument in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park with a water feature and an entrance fountain at Riverview Park in Perry North. Revitalization strategies are evolving, too, with the potential incorporation of storm water management and conservation tools. The more fountains appear in public spaces, Rademacher said, the more people will care about supporting them.