The Cincinnati businessmen Henry Probasco and Tyler Davidson made their fortune in wholesale hardware.2 The pair had long considered donating a large-scale public work of art to the city but nothing ever came of it. After Davidson died in Dec 1865, Probasco revisited the idea and decided to donate a fountain to the city in Davidson’s honor. He sold his interest in the company and spent the next year touring Europe looking for a suitable design.
While in Munich, Ferdinand von Miller, owner of the Königliche Erzgießerei, showed Probasco old sketches of a design by the sculptor August von Kreling. Kreling’s design – The Genius of Water – included a central figure with outstretched arms surrounded by figures allegorically depicting the practical uses of water. It was completely unlike the typical mythological motifs of European fountains and exactly what Probasco was looking for.
Von Miller and his sons spent the next three years casting the bronze fountain in sections from salvaged Danish cannons. Meanwhile Probasco found an appropriate location for the fountain at the site of the Fifth Street Market (between Vine and Walnut Streets). The city council condemned the Market, razed it and replaced it with an esplanade designed by the architect William Tinsley. The fountain was dedicated with great fanfare on 6 Oct 1871.3
Probasco asked “If water is so beautiful in nature, how shall we speak of its uses in art?” The fountain would be the perfect answer. It soon became the most photographed landmark in Cincinnati and has became the symbol of the city.
The fountain has been moved, restored and re-dedicated several times over the years. As part of the 1964 Plan for Downtown Cincinnati the westbound lane of Fifth street was removed and a plaza was constructed. The fountain was relocated to the Vine and Walnut Street corner and re-dedicated on 6 Oct 1971 – its 100th anniversary.
The fountain underwent a major restoration and retrofitting in 2000. Finally, as part of the 3CDC Fountain Square renovation the fountain was again restored, moved to its current location, and dedicated yet again on October 14, 2006. After more than 140 years Henry Probasco’s gift still remains the cultural heart of the city.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all of the images here are scans of actual stereo cards or photographic prints from the collection of your humble narrators’ Dad.
2. Tyler Davidson & Co. Importers and Jobbers of Hardware, Cutlery and Metals. Nos. 140 and 142, Main Street, Cincinnati, Ohio
3. Technical specifications: The fountain, sand-cast from 24 tons of bronze, is 38 ft tall with the central figure 9 ft tall. The basin, constructed from 85 tons of imported granite, is 43 ft in diameter (outer dimension). It cost Probasco 105,000 USD (17.9 M USD, adjusted for today). The original esplanade cost the city 75,000 USD.
4. Here is a chromolithograph of the photo from a 1907 postcard:
5. This photo was taken by my Dad around 1978. He entered it in a photo contest and won an award for it. Recently (i.e. today) he said I had no idea what I was talking about – he never won any award. I still think I am right but in any case it is my all-time favorite of his photos.
22 Feb 2012 ‧ Photography