Return to the Living

There was a good news story in Washington, DC today.  The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain, situated at the apex of the Federal Triangle complex in downtown Washington, is now operating again after an 8-year hiatus.  In a special ceremony this morning, the 75th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, the fountain burst back to life in dramatic fashion.

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Mellon Memorial Fountain, Running Again

Designed in a style similar to a fountain in Genoa, Italy, the Mellon Memorial Fountain consists of three nested bronze basins, from which water cascades into a low granite-curbed pool, measuring 55 feet, 4 inches in diameter. Water is supplied from the central jet or plume, and flows from the two top tiers into largest and deepest of the bronze basins. The water is kept at a constant level by sophisticated controls and is tempered and smoothed by means of a bronze baffle, so that when it finally pours over the lip of the basin, it becomes a clear transparent sheet of water.

Cast by Roman Bronze Works and General Bronze Corporation in 1952, it is thought that this was the largest bronze fountain known at the time of construction. The material is known as statuary bronze—a quaternary alloy made of copper, zinc, tin, and lead, and traditionally golden brown in color.

Sidney Waugh, commissioned to design the reliefs for the lowest basin, created twelve high-relief symbols of the zodiac that were cast in bronze and applied to the fluted wall. The sign of Aries is situated so that the sun shines on Aries on March 21—the vernal equinox.

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Sunrise, Mellon Fountain

(Photographed today as the rising sun illuminated the basin and the Aires symbol)

I first photographed the fountain six years ago, after I learned about its relationship to the solar cycle.  I visited at sunrise on the morning of that year’s spring equinox and was saddened by its pathetic condition.  I have always been hopeful that it would someday be brought back to life.  The photograph below provides a rough idea of its condition in 2010.

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Sunrise on Vernal Equinox, March 2010

The fountain and surrounding triangular park, which are dedicated to Gallery founder Andrew W. Mellon, had been the responsibility of the National Park Service.  But in September 2015 custody was transferred to the National Gallery of Art.   The rapidity of the renovation under the aegis of the National Gallery is impressive.

According to the Gallery’s press office, their conservators worked with Washington-area firm Conservation Solutions, Inc. to assist in carrying out the treatment on the bronze fountain. In order to preserve the bronze patina while removing a green mineralization buildup, the team used a special method of blasting dry ice (CO2) on the metal surface instead of using strong chemicals or an aggressive mechanical process to remove the multiple corrosion layers. The process revealed a stunning surface, with original brushstrokes of protective wax visible across the bronze. Several layers of a new protective wax coating were added to help preserve the bronze surface. Annual maintenance will be carried out in the winter when the fountain is not operating.

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Throwing the Switch

Special thanks to my photo colleague, Michele, who alerted me to this event and to gracious staff at the National Gallery who invited me to attend their press briefing and rededication ceremony.  More can be learned about the history of the fountain here.  Information about the origins of the National Gallery of Art can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Return to the Living

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