From fountains to lakes to Fountain Lake, Richmond is blessed with
City of Water
At the turn of the 20th century, Richmonders boarded that modern marvel, electric streetcars, and rattled westward or southerly to romp in Westhampton or Forest Hill Lake.
That doesn't happen anymore. Today, Westhampton Pond is a spoke of the University of Richmond campus, while Forest Hill Lake is a murky swamp. Swimming isn't encouraged at either. And air conditioning has squelched a centuries-old urban tradition of getting wet, or even considering a public waterworks as a way to cool off in the summer.
But Richmond's fountains and other water features still act as clarion calls to summer. True, we are more likely to experience waterworks from passing vehicles as come upon them by foot. They nonetheless provide aesthetic, psychological and civilizing respites from a frenetic world.
Many of Richmond's fountains are hard to miss. The prancing fountain in Byrd Park's Fountain Lake is clearly visible as one nears the Columbus monument. This is perhaps the city's most famous fountain. Outlined by jagged chunks of granite that emerge from the middle of the lake, on summer days the fountain is a destination for paddle-boaters. When the winds pick up, their efforts are rewarded with a cooling, misty spray.
Another fountain that's hard to miss is the hard-edged, cascading, stepped fountain in Kanawha Plaza. It is on axis with Eighth Street as the downtown thoroughfare sweeps southward before veering off to either the Manchester Bridge or Canal Street. Modernistic and abstract in design, it may be the city's handsomest waterwork. While large-scaled enough to be read at 25 mph by passersby, it is also welcoming enough for those on foot. On hot days, as frequently as not, many people who couldn't resist temptation are seen gleefully splashing around.
Another grand but almost hidden waterwork is located on the Monument Avenue side of St. Mary's Hospital, just west of Libbie. This large, round fountain has a central water spout that shoots straight up and is augmented by simultaneous, encircling sprays of water. The fountain is lighted at night and the water display shifts from soft orange to hues of blue. The fountain is located just outside the hospital's chapel where the cross-adorned nave gestures toward Monument Avenue. Despite its elaborateness, the fountain is all but disguised by the remnants of a hardwood forest that once dominated the area. Adding to the sylvan setting are scores of azaleas the hospital has planted under the trees to provide a seasonal, patterned carpet of pink, mauve and white. The overall effect of St. Mary's fountain is that of a grotto nestled in the woods.
Also pastoral, but more accessible, are the two-tiered Capitol Square fountains, reachable by the brick sidewalks starting near the foot of Shockoe Hill. Erected in the 19th century, the cast-iron fountains are fed by natural springs. Encircled by a rose border and a cast-iron fence, these fountains have long delighted lunchtime picnickers as well as the squirrels and pigeons that populate this verdant downtown park.
The fountain in Monroe Park near Laurel and Floyd streets is similar in design to those in Capitol Square. Since unfortunately all the low-lying landscaping has been removed from this Fan District park, the fountain serves to muffle city sounds generated from the four surrounding busy streets.
Richmond's most beloved fountain is also its smallest: the horse fountain in Shockoe Slip. The marble waterwork is dedicated to Captain Robert Morgan, a Confederate officer and "One who loved animals." It is an important focal point in this stylish piazza.
In addition to the reconfigured canal, one of downtown's newest water features is the low-lying, Zenlike water feature of the Library Park at the northwest corner of Main and Second streets behind the Richmond Public Library. Water gurgles though a small opening and glides evenly and down the sides of a smooth, granite slab.
Man-made water features are obviously seen as a plus for the builders of large-scale housing developments (while serving double duty as required water-retention basins). Brandermill and Woodlake are both built on the Swift Creek Reservoir. The reservoir is a visual treat for those traveling on Hull Street Road and a respite from the barrage of commercial activity along that continually developing stretch. In Wellesley and Wyndham, Richmond's sprawling far-West End neighborhoods, man-made lakes play an important part in the appeal of the well-tended landscapes. At Innsbrook, Richmond's edge city, the lake is a focal point not only at lunchtime, but as the venue for summer concerts.
On the Randolph-Macon College campus in Ashland, a fountain spewing exuberantly serves as an architectural unifier, providing a central focus point to a campus that originally grew without any discernible aesthetic plan.
If fountains and water features are so important at Randolph Macon and at University of Richmond, it's interesting that Virginia Commonwealth University has no water feature on either its medical or its Fan district campus. And Virginia Union University and Union Theological Seminary on the North Side are also mighty dry: Regardless of their Baptist and Presbyterian roots, they might consider adding a little liquid to the landscape.
Some waterworks have disappeared. A modernistic fountain in Mayor Fulmer Bright Park, across from St. John's Church on Church Hill, was removed during a reconfiguring of that space. And fountains in front of the main U.S. Post Office on Brook Road were drained, filled with topsoil and now serve as flower planters.
A fountain in front of the Virginia Housing Development Authority building on Belvidere never saw water. Officials believed a water feature would look too grandiose what are we financing, Versailles? and decided at the last minute to plant it with flowers.
But Richmond's largest water feature that never was would have been a reflecting pool in front of the Carillon in Byrd Park. Today there is a large, recessed area in front of the landmark bell tower that remains utterly dry. But when it was designed it was intended to be filled with water a la Lincoln Memorial to reflect the towering World War I monument and bordering dogwoods alike. Alas, the Depression put a halt to further development.
But be they brick, granite, marble or concrete, Richmond's fountains cannot compare with its grandest waterwork: the river. No matter how appealing fountains may be, if you work or reside at a place with windows onto this natural asset you know man-made waterworks are just shadows of the real thing.