From left, National Gallery of Art officials Darrell Willson, Andrew Saul, Frederick Beinecke, and Earl "Rusty" Powell turn on the restored Andrew W. Mellon Fountain near the National Gallery of Art, which has not worked since 2008. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

When the Andrew W. Mellon Fountain was dedicated, in 1952, the ceremonial switch was connected to the pumps by wires. When top National Gallery of Art officials pushed a replica of that switch at 9:52 a.m. today, the connection was by radio control.

The fountain, which hadn’t worked since 2008, came to life in less than a minute. The plume at the top emerged and quickly grew to full height. The small bronze basin overflowed into the larger bowl below, and, finally, the 38-foot-wide lower cascade began, creating a reflective sheen of water that caught the colors of the trees and the concrete and even the bright green T-shirts of a passing shoal of tourists.

The fountain is one of Washington’s treasures and a memorial to the National Gallery’s founder. Along with the fountain at Dupont Circle and the cascade at Meridian Hill Park, it has a strong claim to being the most beautiful water feature in the city. But it is also surrounded by the perpetual traffic of Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and, despite its size, marooned in one of this city’s awkward pocket parks. As National Gallery Director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III said at the opening ceremony, “People driving by just forgot that there was a fountain there.”

That an object of this beauty could hide in plain sight, that it could lie in disuse for so long — that it took internecine government negotiations and ultimately private funds (from the Richard King Mellon Foundation) to restore it — makes this fountain a case study in the dynamics of Washington’s public space.

When Andrew Mellon died, in 1937, the National Gallery was still under construction. The building didn’t bear his name, by design, but his friends felt that the wealthy industrialist and financier deserved a memorial for his contributions. Congress agreed and in 1947 authorized use of the eastern apex of the Federal Triangle, a massive redevelopment project underway since the mid-1920s. The fountain fit well into the aesthetic program of architecture, murals and statues that made the triangle one of the great examples of a thorough integration of art and architecture funded by the government.

“It ends up being the exclamation point on the Federal Triangle,” says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the principal design-oversight group in the capital.

For decades, the fountain was controlled by the National Park Service. And for decades, the National Park Service has struggled to maintain not just it, but dozens of other city fountains under its jurisdiction.

“We asked for it because the National Park Service didn’t want it,” says Powell, of the National Gallery. The Park Service doesn’t put it so bluntly, but representatives admit that they didn’t have the funds for its upkeep, part of a larger budget problem so acute that it will affect the future look of the District.

“Every time we have a new memorial, there is that discussion, and every time we have that discussion, we will discourage water features,” says Catherine Dewey, chief of resource management for the Mall and memorial parks.

Because the Park Service couldn’t afford to restore it, the National Gallery asked to take over the site. Using donated funds, the gallery has started a two-stage restoration as part of the gallery’s 75th anniversary year. The next phase includes renovation of the plaza and the addition of state-of-the-art water-quality equipment.

The Park Service isn’t the only institution burdened by the cost of fountain maintenance. The Smithsonian and the Architect of the Capitol face similar challenges. In coming weeks, many of the city’s fountains will emerge from their seasonal hibernation, but many won’t. Columbus Fountain at Union Station is inoperative and will remain so until the Park Service can find a partner to assist with the cost. The water pool at Pershing Park will probably never come back to life. Smithsonian officials say that the fountain on the north side of the National Museum of American History will remain “offline because we are still planning and designing the renovation of it.” And when asked about other inoperative water features, they didn’t even mention the empty reflecting pool at the Delta Solar sculpture at the Air and Space Museum.

Maintenance isn’t the only thing that plagues the city’s fountains. Whereas they were once used as accents or focal points for major buildings or urban nodal points, they have become a reflexive design response to contemporary landscape. The dramatic fountains at the World War II Memorial are costly and complex, but without them, the pompous classical plaza is hopelessly barren. Without the star-shaped fountain and pool enhanced by a flame emerging from the water at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the space would be moribund.

So at the same time that institutions and government bodies are failing to maintain older fountains, designers are still calling on new ones to do an unfair amount of symbolic and visual work. Rather than enhance and focus public space, they are meant to “activate” it. That may heighten a tendency to unorthodox design that makes maintenance even more complicated.

“The problem with new fountains,” says Don Kirk, chief of maintenance for the National Park Service division that oversees Meridian Hill Park, is that “if something fails, it stops the whole fountain. With the older fountains, there are more workarounds.” Among Kirk’s duties is maintaining the park’s magnificent 13-basin cascade, which takes up about half of the budget.

By the time the Mellon Fountain was shut down, in 2008, only its central plume was still working, and even that was anemic. Mineral deposits had formed on the bronze, and the pump that pushed water over the edges of the bowls wasn’t working. The cascade effect — a shimmering curtain of water so thin you can clearly see the bronze sculptural figures representing the zodiac behind it — had been lost. Restoration included blasting the bronze with dry ice to remove the green mineral buildup. Now protected with a new wax coating, the bronze has a rich, brownish luster.

Major renovation by the National Gallery to a triangular wedge of public space across Constitution Avenue has also enhanced the visual effect of the fountain, which can now be seen more clearly as you approach from the east. This view not only lets you see the symmetrical relation of the fountain to the Apex Building (which houses the Federal Trade Commission); it also connects the larger National Gallery campus to Federal Triangle beyond.

It also hints at a curious oddity of the fountain, which was placed asymmetrically in relation to the gallery’s monumental main entrance. This was, in part, because the designers wanted more space than was available in front of the gallery. But it has a happy civic consequence: One of the great views in the city — the National Gallery north portico seen from Sixth Street — isn’t obscured by the fountain. So the building that doesn’t bear Mellon’s name isn’t obstructed by the fountain that honors him.

Nearby, at the base of the Apex Building, sculptor Michael Lantz’s monumental figures of men wrestling horses, the 1942 “Man Controlling Trade,” looks over to the offset memorial to one of this country’s richest men. So a monument to a different age of philanthropy is paired with a memorial to a different relationship to capitalism. And the cascade flowing out of the great bronze bowl not only masks the crazy traffic on all sides, it also animates the fundamental democratic desire for transparency and clarity.