CINCINNATI — Henry Probasco intended it to rival the great fountains of Europe when it was first dedicated. Now, a century and a half later, the Tyler Davidson Fountain serves as the heart of the Queen City.

On Wednesday, representatives from the City of Cincinnati and various downtown organizations gathered at Fountain Square to mark the 150th anniversary of the fountain.

The various figures on the Tyler Davidson Fountain represent the benefits of water. (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)
The various figures on the Tyler Davidson Fountain represent the benefits of water. (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)

"This centerpiece of Fountain Square is the most well-known symbol of our city, and one of its most beloved and beautiful attractions," said City Manager Paula Boggs Muething.

City Council member David Mann called the statue “second-to-none."

"Whether in Paris, whether in Spain, you won’t find a more beautiful fountain anywhere in the world. So we really should be proud of what's been done here,” he added.

The fountain was gifted to the city by Probasco, a hardware magnate, in honor of his business partner and brother-in-law, Tyler Davidson. The dedication took place on Oct. 6, 1871. It's inscribed "To the People of Cincinnati.”

Origin of the 'Genius of Water'

Probasco wanted a fountain that told a story, according to ArtWorks Cincinnati. The nonprofit said he visited the Royal Foundry in Munich, Germany, and was shown a design by August von Kreling that highlighted the benefits of water.

Probasco thought that theme was appropriate for Cincinnati, which was settled and flourished because of its proximity to the Ohio River, ArtWorks said. 

Now, the 43-foot-tall bronze and granite statue features at the top a prominent female figure, fondly known as the "Genius of Water" or "The Lady." Streams of water flow from the 438 holes in each of her outstretched palms.

Below her, four large human figures represent the practical uses of water:

  • A man hopes for rain to put out the fire destroying his home; he is on his roof
  • A young woman offers water to an old man
  • A farmer leans on his plow watching for rain to nourish his crops
  • A young mother takes her young child for a bath

At the base of the fountain are the figures of four children who represent the benefits of water.

On Wednesday, the base was encircled by a floral installation designed by a local florist, Daisy Jane.

While the fountain had symbolic significance, it also served a practical purpose.

"Did you know that this fountain is a monument to temperance? It was intended to keep Cincinnatians out of the saloons,” Boggs Muething said.

The city manager went on to say that the water provided clean public drinking water to the residents. Each of the four statuary spigots had a cup attached to it.

"At that time you could only get a cold drink in a saloon, or a coffee house — surely less fun than a saloon,” she said.

Boggs Muething joked that such an activity would “definitely not be approved by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) today." But the Fountain Square website states that the water that flows from the fountain is "fresh, not chlorinated, water" and can still be consumed.

Maintaining a city icon

Over the years, the fountain has undergone regular maintenance to preserve it.

Crews from the city’s Department of Public Services and contractors perform work on the fountain twice per year – once in the fall just before winter and once in early spring once most of the cold weather has passed.

They clean all of the surfaces by hand and then melt on a new layer of wax to prevent corrosion, according to Matt Rowekamp, the city's facilities manager.

Rowekamp said there've also been modifications needed to other aspects of the fountain as well.

"The plumbing components have to be maintained. That's happened a few times over the years, including most recently when it was last restored," he said. Just recently they added some new control valves that allow it to be turned off when the wind speeds are strong and the water starts spraying around the square.

The fountain is turned off and winterized to help protect it during the colder months, usually around the end of November or early December. They turn it back on to coincide with another celebrated local institution, Cincinnati Reds opening day.

Over the years, they've also added a programmable LED lighting system that allows it to don signature color schemes to align with special events, such a rotating rainbow for Pride Month or purple for Alzheimer's Awareness Month. They replaced the system earlier this year.

At the heart of Fountain Square  no matter where it's located

Originally, and for more than 100 years, Fountain Square was simply a wide esplanade down the middle of Fifth Street. The fountain was in the middle. It faced east to symbolically welcome people relocating to the then-growing city.

In 1970, the square was redesigned for better traffic flow. They moved the fountain to the south end of the plaza at the time.

The fountain was cleaned, restored and rededicated in 2000.

In 2006, as one of three key projects to revitalize the center city, Fountain Square underwent another, more considerable renovation as part of overall downtown enhancements. The goal was to make it more of an entertainment and gathering center.

During the renovations, they removed the fountain to protect it. When the remodeling was completed, crews reinstalled it in a more wide-open space. It now faces south.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) took over the management of Fountain Square in 2007. They're now in charge of its programming ever since. That included Wednesday's ceremony.

"I am delighted to celebrate the centerpiece of Fountain Square. This square is our city's center stage and our most cherished civic space," Boggs Muething said. "Many, many thanks to our city and in particular, to 3CDC for their work in making sure that this is a vibrant, welcoming, exciting place to spend an evening, watch a game, or hear some amazing music."

Shortly following the city manager's comments, the band Soul Pocket entered the crowd that had gathered. Entertainment went until 8 p.m.