It was a typical summer morning in downtown Washington, with tourists thick on the hot sidewalks, and Tony Truesdale in a hole beneath them, trying to bring another dead fountain back to life.
“I got water,” Truesdale shouted from the dank pit of a pump room at the Bolívar memorial, dedicated in 1959, a block from the Mall. An encouraging burble shook the nest of ancient steel tubes and midcentury valves just as a silhouetted head appeared in the square of sunlight above.
“You got water?” Joe Gallo, one of Truesdale’s fellow National Park Service plumbers, called down. Behind him, contractors were snaking high-pressure hoses through pipes that were laid decades ago and have been clogged for years.
“It’s coming through,” Gallo said.
Summer is fountain-fighting season in the nation’s capital, as teams of Park Service water whisperers strain to keep more than 60 pools, ponds, spouts and cascades flowing across the city’s monumental core.
From the pocket parks — such as this six-spouter at the Bolívar memorial — to the grand gushers of the National World War II Memorial, they do months of battle with 19th-century plumbing, balky pumps and an $850 million maintenance backlog, not to mention gravity, algae and historic preservationists.
“It’s beautiful when you get everything going,” Truesdale said as he tightened a connection in preparation for installing a new pump for the Bolívar fountain. “But something else crops up every day. Nobody likes it when they go down.”
Dry fountains are the empty storefronts of public architecture, depressing testaments to civic shortcomings. When running, they rush with life and energy. When they fail, they are sad clowns amid the marble — mute and downcast.
“There’s a statement of public welfare in having a fountain,” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the body charged with upholding the architectural force of federal Washington. “It speaks to the idea of common good and a competent government. When you have an empty pool that is supposed to be a central feature, the place loses its soul.”
Almost half of the Park Service water features in the District are in need of repair, including damaged grates at the cauldron-like spout on Theodore Roosevelt Island and the strainers and impeller motors at the U.S. Navy Memorial. The towering Dupont Circle fountain is tilting, its huge top basin inching off-kilter and slowly spoiling the flow from its three scuppers.
Some water features seem permanently derelict, most notably the enormous Columbus fountain outside Union Station, dry for a decade and futilely awaiting a $10 million overhaul. That one was built in 1912 with the waterworks buried within the sculpture; getting to the pipes will take not just plumbers but art conservators.
“Each one of these things is unique,” said Jeff Gowen, the National Mall and Memorial Parks facilities manager. “They never go away, but they do get to a point where we can no longer operate them.”
Fountains have been a darling of grand urban thinkers since the Romans strung the aqueducts. The 18th-century mastermind of Washington’s layout, Pierre L’Enfant, was raised amid the fountains at the French palace of Versailles and wanted them scattered throughout the new capital. The 1902 report from the McMillan Commission to update the Mall envisioned water everywhere, including several fountains at the base of the Washington Monument, which were never built.
But plenty were, and decades later, the Park Service crews wrestle with an expanding portfolio that ranges from the historic to the high-tech. Behind timeless public facades, every hard-won year shows, such as the pump chamber of the Columbus Circle fountain. Hidden beneath a hatch passed by thousands of commuters and pedestrians each day, the chamber is filled with a Jules Verne contrivance of pits and pipes and analog valves.
“Like something out of the Titanic,” marveled Park Service spokesman Mark Litterst.
At the other extreme, stepping through the huge flood-proof door beneath the 2004 World War II Memorial is more like boarding a nuclear submarine. Every massive pump hums beneath bright lights; every pipe and valve is meticulously labeled. Containers of chlorine are neatly stacked.
Many of the water features, including the 1997 Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, empty directly into storm drains, which limits the chemical treatments that technicians can use to clear the algae. The oldest fountains weren’t built to recirculate water, instead they draw thousands of gallons of it an hour from the city supply, spraying it once in the air and letting it drain away.
“It’s like turning on the spigot at your house and letting it run all summer,” Gowen said. Most of those old fountains have since been converted, he said.
Even a working fountain is like a toddler, beloved but needing constant attention. In the days before South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent state visit, workers trying to steam clean the pool at the Korean War Veterans Memorial were stymied by a busted electrical component that prevented them from even draining it.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Gowen said.
“A fountain is a beautiful pain in the [butt],” said Ruth Robbins, president of Friends of Chevy Chase Circle, a neighborhood group that formed largely out of frustration with the anemic fountain sitting in the middle of that gateway traffic circle in Northwest Washington. The group, one of several local efforts to supplement federal maintenance, paid for a new brass fountainhead in the 1990s and has raised $80,000 toward a new pump and plumbing.
“The Park Service does the best they can, but we understand their resource and staffing issues,” Robbins said.
At Meridian Hill’s Italianate cascading fountain — the longest in North America, according to the Park Service — residents have formed a kind of neighborhood fountain watch to alert officials to problems that have led to more frequent dry outs.
And the National Gallery of Art last year took over the Mellon Memorial Fountain outside its front door, raising private money to rehab a high-profile water feature that had been fallow since 2008.
The Park Service is attempting to bring back another dormant fountain: the Bolívar memorial, which sits directly outside the front door of the Interior Department. Agency staffers couldn’t determine the last time the rectangular pool had spouted water, and many passing pedestrians didn’t know that the fetid green pool was once a handsome fountain.
“It was basically a wildlife refuge,” Truesdale said, pulling out his phone to show pictures of the muck they had pumped out a few weeks earlier.
In his confirmation hearing, newly installed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cited the need to fix Washington fountains as part of addressing the $12.5 billion maintenance list at parks throughout the country. Park Service staff members learned that their new boss had taken an interest in the Bolívar fountain, which is visible from his office. Zinke’s press secretary said he wasn’t available for an interview.
Once drained, the crew was surprised to find beauty beneath the blight. Six huge bronze stars (one for each of the countries liberated by the 19th-century Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar) were mounted in a pool of blue tile. Now the stars are being refurbished, the aged pipes reamed clean and the new pump wrangled into its damp pit.
Another wet and needy wonder ready to cool this corner of the season in Washington.