I was walking back to my car on a dark rainy night when a beacon of light drew me in, yes, like a moth to a flame. The area wasn’t very well lit, though it was at the foot of Capitol Hill. The U.S. Capitol’s dome glowed white in the distance. I was walking by one of my favorite Washington parks, Bartholdi Park. It’s located on Independence Avenue, one of Washington’s main streets, directly across from the U.S. Botanic Garden. The central feature of Bartholdi Park is its fountain which has been under renovation and out of view for many years. I don’t recall ever seeing the fountain at night.
But there is was, restored in full glory, cascading water shimmering in brilliant light. I was mesmerized. It is from another era, beautifully intricate. Its designer was French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, better known for his later creation, the Statue of Liberty. Officially called “Fountain of Light and Water,” it originally graced the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. At the exposition’s end he couldn’t find another buyer, so Bartholdi sold the fountain to the U.S. Congress for $6000 – Frederic Law Olmstead who designed the Capitol grounds had made the suggestion to Congress. They placed the fountain at the center of the botanical gardens on the Mall at the foot of Capitol Hill.
To fully appreciate the fountain, you need to view it after dark. Bartholdi saw it as a symbol of a modern city, reflected in its three main elements, iron, gaslight and water. It was most likely one of the first fountains to be lit at night. Originally lit with gas fixtures, the lighting was updated with changing technology. By 1881 it was lit with a battery, and fully electrified by 1915. In the 1880s it was a popular destination at night, apparently one of the first attractions in the city to be brightly illuminated at dark.
The fountain was moved to its present site when the botanic garden was relocated during 1927-1932.
In a world where we take electricity for granted, think about the power of light in the darkness. Take a trip to the fountain at night and consider the fountain through nineteenth century eyes. The fountain and park are one of Washington’s little-known treasures and well worth a visit in spring, summer or fall.
photo by Architect of the Capitol
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