Answer Man used to think that the famed du Pont family so loved the 1884 statue of Samuel Francis Du Pont in the District’s Dupont Circle that they wanted it for themselves, back in their Delaware ancestral bosom.
As recounted in this space last week, that’s wrong. They didn’t like the statue and thought something finer should adorn the confluence of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts avenues NW. And so: a fountain.
A fountain is an especially fitting monument for a man who spent his career on the water. And it was agreed that Washington needed fountains. In 1921, The Post wrote: “No capital city except Rome has so great a need of fountains as has Washington and no capital city in the world has so few fountains as has Washington. Moreover, the few fountains are dry at the very time when they are most needed.”
The du Ponts had graciously offered to pick up the tab for a fountain. They turned to the superstar team of sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon, who were responsible for the Lincoln Memorial. The result was a two-tiered fountain in white marble. An upper basin, 14 feet wide, is supported by three allegorical figures standing in a lower, 35-foot-wide basin. Two female figures symbolize the sea and the stars, while a male figure symbolizes the wind. Maritime details include a sea gull, a conch shell and a dolphin.
Reported the Evening Star: “The flow of the water from the upper basin is arranged so as not to interfere with the full display of the figures on the pedestal.”
It is a fetching fountain. There was, however, one problem: At the time, parts of Washington, including Dupont Circle, were suffering from poor water supply. It was doubtful that water could reach the fountain and keep it charged, especially as Clarence S. Ridley, officer in charge of public grounds, had decreed against the waste of water in fountains.
And so the du Pont family ponied up for an electric pump to recirculate the water. (A similar pump was in use at the Columbus fountain in front of Union Station.)
The fountain was dedicated with much ceremony on May 17, 1921. Attendees noticed that the work bore the legend, in reference to Du Pont: “This Memorial Fountain Replaces a Statue Erected by the Congress of the United States in Recognition of His Distinguished Services.” Congress always wants to be in on the action.
In a 1996 article for a National Park Service publication, Mary F. McCutchan wrote that the fountain was an expression of the City Beautiful movement that had gripped Washington in the wake of the McMillan Plan. That plan, released in 1902, advocated cleaning up the Mall and embracing a neo-classical Beaux-Arts style. The Dupont fountain is in keeping with that vision of a white marble Washington.
Of course, life is not easy when you’re made of marble. In 1925, a letter-writer to the Evening Star complained that swarms of children were using the fountain as their plaything, “climbing upon it, throwing stones and dirt at it, and, as a consequence, the upper part of the bill of the sea gull is entirely broken off —disfiguring this whole statue, as I see it.”
In 1933, the hand on one of the figures was broken off. “Mischievous youngsters are blamed,” reported The Post.
A replacement was carved and reattached. Then several fingers were broken off the replacement. In 1936, both hands of the male figure were removed and had to be replaced. In 1937, another hand was broken off.
After World War II, the entire fountain was removed when an underpass was constructed for streetcars and automobiles. It was reinstalled in 1950.
One other thing: Kevin J. Weddle, author of the 2005 biography “Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont” (University of Virginia Press), laments that “Dupont” Circle is a misnomer.
“The large and prolific Dupont family tended to be a little idiosyncratic when spelling their name,” he wrote to Answer Man in an email. “I’ve seen it spelled duPont, Dupont, du Pont and Du Pont. The admiral spelled his name Du Pont to distinguish his part of the family from other branches.”
Answer Man guesses it’s a little late for that now.
The Dupont statues may have lost their hands from time to time. We want you to lend one. How? By participating in The Washington Post Helping Hand, a campaign that’s raising money for Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Community of Hope and Homestretch. These three nonprofits work with homeless teens and families in our area.
It’s easy for Post readers to make a donation. Simply visit posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.