A jewel of the Boston Common glistens once more

Fountain offers historic oasis

By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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The bronze sea nymphs of the city’s oldest fountain are once again bathed in water.

The Brewer Fountain, a 19th century sculpture that has long adorned Boston Common, was rededicated yesterday after a yearlong restoration project that followed many years of neglect.

As a crowd of politicians, donors, and others watched on a sweltering late spring afternoon, city officials pushed a button, and for the first time in years, water spurted through the 142-year-old fountain.

“Fountains are the beauties of our city,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said before leading a countdown for the water to start trickling from the spouts. Then, as 40 gentle streams splashed into a newly restored granite pool, Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, gushed, “I feel like I’m in Paris.’’

The fountain, the only known surviving copy of the original featured at the 1855 Paris World Fair, was imported from Switzerland by Gardner Brewer, a wealthy merchant, and assembled on the Common in 1868. It ran dry in 2003, when its pump died, but it had long before become a victim of time, neglect, and pollution.

In the end, the long-delayed project cost $640,000, which included $350,000 from the city and the rest from the federal government and local benefactors. The restoration is part of a larger multimillion-dollar project, much of it to be financed by private donors, to beautify the surrounding area with new trees, benches, granite, fences, and more.

“The goal is to make this the hub of the Hub,’’ said Herbert Nolan, associate director of the Solomon Fund, which has raised money to repair the fountain and surrounding area. “We want this to be a breath of fresh air for the city, a romantic destination where people will want to meet.’’

The first effort to repair the 22-foot-tall fountain began nearly a decade ago. Workers discovered extensive damage to the pipes and determined that the project would require much more money than anticipated.

As officials sought contributions, the city treated the fountain like a sculpture, sprucing it up with plants, flowers, and other ornaments. But park officials began to worry that the deteriorating bronze and cast-iron armature at the center could cause the fountain to collapse.

They hired Daedalus Inc. of Watertown to dismantle the fountain and restore its sculptures, which include representations of Neptune, Amphitrite (Neptune’s wife), and Acis and Galatea, a couple from Greek mythology. They also installed a new mechanical pump and filtration system, added lights, and repaired the granite plinths and concrete basin.

“It was amazing to see how much work it takes,’’ said Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, which has raised money for the project. “It took an enormous amount of painstaking effort.’’

The work fell to Joshua Craine, a sculpture conservator with Daedalus, who has spent the past year doting on the fountain’s sea nymphs and tousled-haired cherubs, using cotton swabs, brushes, and a torch to restore their eroded glory.

When his work began, Craine had to remove skeletons of dead pigeons and scores of bottles, boots, tennis balls, and other debris that had clogged the fountain’s pipes over the decades.

His team pressure-washed the fountain and dismantled it into 14 pieces, making sure to label every screw and bolt. It was then shipped to their office in Watertown, where it was restored by architects, engineers, electricians, and plumbers.

Craine used special oxidizing chemicals and a blowtorch to remove the patina that had covered much of the fountain and then applied an acrylic coating and special wax.

He had to repair multiple cracks and holes before returning the 15,000 pounds of bronze to its perch on the Common in November.

They waited for the warmer weather before turning on the water, which will flow every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Antonia Pollak, commissioner of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, was elated, even as she hinted at one of a number of plumbing problems that had plagued the fountain over the years.

“I’ve been waiting for a long time for water to be flowing from the sculpture that’s not flowing into the MBTA tunnel,’’ she said.

David Abel can be reached at

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