On October 23, 1887, when St. Albans first turned on the ladies of Taylor Park, the effect around town was nothing short of electric.
“Those who arose early saw them amid the shining glories of the rising sun … the attractive figures upon the fountain. The graceful and handsome maiden … the shapely figures about the base,” the St. Albans Messenger rhapsodized the next day. “For long years to come it would remain marvelous in its beauty — an inspiration and a delight — the pride of St. Albans.”
Railroad tycoon and former Vermont governor John Gregory Smith presumably intended that reaction when he donated the $2000 fountain to St. Albans. Sitting on the board of Vermont Central Railroad, Smith played no small role in the village’s economic development.
Even if the “ladies” were just a cherry on top of Smith’s other contributions, they have remained iconic, standing 30 feet tall and looming large over Taylor Park, a 5-acre green space that slopes down to Main Street. Even the Smithsonian has taken note: In 2009, a photo of the fountain appeared on the front cover of Zinc Sculpture in America, 1850-1950, a 705-page book by Carol A. Grissom, a senior conservator for the institution.
Visible as the fountain is, it has seen better days. It consists of three sections: a cast-iron fountain stem; a wide, concrete basin surrounded by a granite ring; and zinc statues (one water nymph at the top, three cherubs halfway down and four musing ladies at the base). The nymph was cast from a model originally made in Paris in 1867, according to Grissom’s book, and no more than seven such sculptures still stand in the U.S.
Since the fountain was last refurbished in 1987, the wear and tear has been so great that St. Albans was forced to shut it down in spring 2012. The fingers and feet on individual statues are cracking and peeling, while water has seeped under the basin and frozen, eroding the grout that once acted as a seal.
In advance of the city’s sesquicentennial reenactment of the St. Albans Raid next October, several residents have been ramping up their efforts to restore “the pride of St. Albans.” But, according to Jeff Young, an alderperson who manages the park and has spearheaded the restoration, it’s not clear if the fountain will be running by that deadline.
What’s needed isn’t a Band-Aid approach, he believes, but for someone to disassemble the fountain completely, refurbish its individual parts and reengineer the plumbing and basin on which they sit. “It’s not a $20,000 fix. It’s a quarter-million-dollar fix,” Young explains of the required work.
Although the city council hasn’t taken up any motions to write a bond for the restoration, it has been getting estimates from ORW Landscape Architects and Planners, a White River Junction firm that most recently suggested costs between $250,000 and $300,000, reports St. Albans city manager Dominic Cloud.
The city council will work on a budget to present to voters on Town Meeting Day in March. But Young doesn’t predict the fountain will make the cut this year. As St. Albans has revitalized its downtown, Young readily admits, he and his fellow aldermen have been faced with “one bond [vote] after another.”
Rather than depending on public funds, Young and other residents have started looking to private and corporate donors and grants to raise the $35,000 necessary to kickstart the refurbishment. With the city’s blessing, Young says, the first step would be shipping the fountain to a metalworking firm in Alabama that owns the original French molds of the statues and could recast them in aluminum. That metal is more durable than zinc but can rust easily, requiring ample waterproofing.
Kathleen Manahan, who has organized fundraisers for various causes around St. Albans, recently created the Save the Ladies Fountain Fund. Her fundraisers have included a car show and, last March, a charitable jump into Lake Champlain by city manager Cloud and alderman Chad Spooner. To date, $7000 has been donated to the city for the cause.
Young has been refurbishing Taylor Park since taking over the parks commission in 2006, and now is trying to start a nonprofit organization for the park that could allot funds to the fountain restoration. After all, he explains, the ladies are inseparable from their environment.
“When I took over, [the park] was in desperate condition, and I think we’ve made good progress,” Young says. “But the fountain is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. For over 100 years it’s been the city’s logo, and you don’t want it looking like that.”
For more info about Save the Ladies Fountain Fund, email firstname.lastname@example.org.