Please Put the Bartholdi Fountain in My Front Yard

From 1877 to 1932, the Bartholdi Fountain searched for a permanent home. Though concealed in the old Botanic Garden grounds near the Capitol, the majestic water feature attracted a lot of attention. Everyone in Washington, D.C., had an opinion about where it should go. And every resident, it seemed, wanted it in his or her front yard.



In 1876, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi unveiled his dramatic fountain at the International Exposition in Philadelphia. After the exhibition, Bartholdi, the French sculptor who famously designed the Statue of Liberty, found it prohibitively difficult to ship the 40-ton sculpture back across the Atlantic. He struck a deal with Congress: Bartholdi sold his cast-iron structure to the government for the cut-rate figure of $6,000 in 1877, slashing his original offer by $4,000. Frederick Law Olmsted incorporated it into his plan for the Capitol grounds, nestling it in the Botanic Garden, close to the Capitol. The public loved the classical design and regal sea nymphs, but hated the location. Almost immediately, complaints about the choice of site began pouring in to Congress and the press.

Bartholdi Fountain Stereoview/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-fountain-2014_114_000-front.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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This House Collection stereoview, produced between 1877 and 1881, shows the Bartholdi Fountain in its original Washington, D.C., location.
Shortly after his appointment in 1881, Secretary of State James G. Blaine decided that Dupont Circle, outside his new house, could be gussied up. “I say,” the former Speaker of the House asked a city official, “why can’t you move the bronze fountain in the botanical gardens down by the Capitol, the Bartholdi fountain, you know, that attracted so much attention at the Centennial, and has attracted so little since, up to Dupont Circle? It is only a mile or two.” The official explained that “there’s just one thing in the way. We haven’t water enough on high levels like Dupont Circle for a fountain.” But lack of water pressure wouldn’t stop Secretary Blaine: Intent on bringing the fount to his neck of the woods, he investigated rerouting the district’s water works. However, his plan was abruptly halted by the assassination of President Garfield, and the fountain stayed put.

Bartholdi Fountain Stereoview/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-fountain-2015_042_000_front.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Icicles obscured the stylized naiads, tritons, and aquatic creatures of the Bartholdi Fountain in this stereoview.
Residents and journalists proffered suggestions. “Why will not some one induce the proper authorities to remove the fine Bartholdi fountain from its burial place in the Botanical gardens to the new circle at the southern end of the Capitol grounds?” a reader wrote in to the Washington Post. Other ideas included a square near the State, War, and Navy building by the White House in 1893, and Grant Circle in the Petworth neighborhood in 1914.

After gas lamps were added at the crown and basin, the twinkling illumination at night stirred even more popularity and demand. Residents near Iowa Circle, now called Logan Circle, petitioned the Senate to relocate the fountain to their rotary, “where its artistic beauties will be more likely to be seen,” as the Washington Post rhapsodized. Inhabitants often expounded upon the fixture in remarkably poetic terms. One writer lyrically suggested a move to Pennsylvania Avenue: “On that broad thoroughfare its beauty of design and waters kept at play would contribute more to the pleasure of passers-by than any statuary monument, and would make an agreeable change from the monotony of our still-life adornments.”

Committee Members Sit on the Edge of the Bartholdi Fountain/tiles/non-collection/1/1-4-photo-fountain-PA2015_05_0062.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Members of the House and Senate Committees on Public Buildings and Grounds and the Joint Committee on the Library relaxed on the edge of the fountain during a 1924 inspection. The old Botanic Garden conservatory dome is visible in the background.
The question of location was considered by the Joint Committee on the Library and the House and Senate Committees on Public Buildings and Grounds in the 1920s. One House Collection photograph shows Committee Members, seated along the edge of the basin during a 1924 inspection of the Botanic Garden. The state of Pennsylvania paid for the Bartholdi Fountain to be placed in storage in 1927, so that the George Gordon Meade Memorial could be displayed in its place. (The Meade Memorial was later relocated to Constitution Avenue and Third Street, N.W.) Five years later, the fountain was permanently situated in a park southwest of the Capitol, adjoining the recently reconstructed Botanic Garden. When the Rayburn House Office Building opened next door in 1965, the Bartholdi Fountain was as close as the front yard.

Sources: Anne-Catherine Fallen, A Botanic Garden for the Nation (Government Printing Office, 2007); Washington Post, July 30, 1881 and June 19, 1927.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.