Cold weather will soon turn Burlington's four decorative fountains into empty troughs for seven months. Meanwhile, one reader recently asked: Why haven't the wildlife-themed dual fountains in front of Burlington City Hall functioned for years? Unlike those in City Hall Park and on Battery Street, which for half the year double as kiddie pools, communal dog bowls and, occasionally, bathtubs for vagrants, the Church Street fountains have remained bone-dry for a very long time. WTF?
The short answer is, the twin bubblers that flank City Hall's east entrance have suffered a fate similar to that of previous Queen City water spouts: Time and Vermont's punishing climate have made them extremely costly and time-consuming to maintain. The fountains are expected to eventually run again — though city maintenance workers probably won't lose any sleep if they don't.
First, some history: Decorative water fountains are among humanity's oldest public art forms, dating back to ancient Greece and Crete. From Roman times into the Renaissance, decorative fountains have depicted gods, generals, biblical figures and cherubs who gleefully tinkle in the public water supply.
The first public fountains in the United States, which date to the mid-1800s, were installed to provide the public with clean drinking water, in response to frequent cholera outbreaks. The first such fountain, dedicated in Manhattan's City Hall Park in 1842, shot water 50 feet into the air. It delivered to New Yorkers a continuous stream piped from the then-recently completed Croton reservoir and aqueduct.
By the 1880s, decorative fountains were spouting throughout New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. But, as Joe Satran points out in his 2015 Huffington Post piece "13 Weird Moments in the History of Water Fountains," it wasn't until the early 20th century that anyone realized how unhygienic it was for everyone to drink from the same tin cup, which was typically chained to each fountain. Ick!
Public watering troughs, for horses and humans, were fairly common in 19th-century Vermont. According to data from the University of Vermont's Historic Preservation Program, Burlington's first decorative fountain was erected in City Hall Park in 1881. That fountain was replaced on July 4, 1976, with the current one, which incorporated an old horse trough that once sat at the top of Battery Street.
The animal-themed fountains in front of city hall were designed by the late Brattleboro artist and sculptor Frank Stout (1926-2012). Stout, whose works can be found in such diverse venues as the Vermont Statehouse, the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas, and the U.S. embassies in Brazil and Peru, initially proposed two abstract female nudes. But city councilors and Burlington's newly elected mayor, Bernie Sanders, deep-sixed Stout's concept as "unrecognizable and inappropriate subject matter."
Back at the drawing board, Stout conceived alternative designs that were, if not warmer, at least fuzzier: one of a deer buck, the other of a mother bear frolicking with her cub, cast in bronze and mounted on granite. Those fountains, unveiled in 1982, ran intermittently for years before the plumbing needed retrofitting in 2008. By 2012, however, the water was switched off for good.
Why? Martha Keenan, the city's capital improvement program manager, explains that a small, hard-to-reach leaky pipe is buried beneath several tons of granite.
"It was losing about 100 gallons a day," she says, "and we didn't feel it was a very good thing to waste that much water."
Keenan expects the fountains to be repaired in the next two years, as part of the renovation of city hall and the adjoining park. While that construction is under way, the city will also remove the existing fountain in City Hall Park, thanks in large part to a $500,000 gift announced last October by Tony and Rita Pomerleau.
Todd Greenough, Burlington's facility maintenance manager, who maintains the city's four fountains, won't be sorry to see that one go.
"They're actually all pretty high maintenance because of the environment," says Greenough, who estimates that he and his staff spend nearly eight hours each week just keeping the fountains running. Routine maintenance includes removing, cleaning and reinstalling their filters, "which gets pretty disgusting."
Greenough points out that the fountains are also frequent targets for vandals, who pour liquid soap in them, filling them with suds. Maintenance workers then have to drain them, apply a de-foamer, and refill. That's particularly problematic for the City Hall Park fountain, whose old, underground lines have deteriorated and are difficult to access.
"We can't leave those lines charged [with water], because they leak so badly and they back drain into the basement of city hall," Greenough explains. Even refilling them "gets complicated real quick."
He suggests that the fountain be replaced by a dry public sculpture — say, one with decorative LED lights that respond to music. It would be far cheaper to maintain and, unlike the current fountain, could operate year-round.
That would be preferable from a public health perspective, too. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, public fountains are veritable petri dishes of microscopic nastiness, commonly harboring E. coli, giardia, cryptosporidium and norovirus. While heavily chlorinated public swimming pools are subject to water-quality standards, none exist for decorative fountains, although people and their pets routinely play in them.
These days, moreover, decorative fountains aren't the draw they were in the time of cholera. A contemporary one at the top of Church Street, installed in 1994, was removed and bricked over in May 2013. It was a hindrance to attracting new retailers to the top block, explains Church Street Marketplace executive director Ron Redmond.
Greenough and his crew may not get their way in City Hall Park, where the Pomerleaus' gift specifically included an earmark for a children's splash park. But hope springs eternal.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Why Don't the Burlington City Hall Fountains Ever Work?"
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.