A long-lost fountain will rise again in West Chester
By J. Chambless
The original fountain, with Chester County Hospital in the background. (Photo courtesy of Chester County Historical Society)
By John Chambless
In 1883, a leisurely stroll through Marshall Square Park in West Chester was a chance to enjoy the shade of large trees, to see and be seen by neighbors and passers-by, and to stop and admire a fine fountain that splashed in the northeast corner of the park. By 1889, civic pride – and a little funding – led to this first fountain replaced by an even grander example. It had five cast-iron layers, allowing the water to jet out from the top and then trickle down over the ledges to the basin below.
But as the decades went by, fountains became nothing to admire anymore. By the 1960s, the fountain was gone. And that would have been the end of the story, if not for the Friends of Marshall Square Park, a group of residents who got together in 2005 to maintain the trees and surviving buildings in the park. They had historic photos of the park, with the fountain standing tall. They started investigating what happened to it.
Eventually, the pieces were discovered to have been at the farm of Gene and Joan Gagliardi, who had installed three of the tiers and kept the fountain operating on their property. The top tier was never found. The Friends of Marshall Square Park recovered the three tiers after the Gagliardis moved, and have had them in storage since 2012, lining up the restoration process.
Of course, there was the question of what remained inside the corroded iron fence around the area where the fountain once stood. So shovels hit the dirt.
Anne F. Walters, who has her own landscape architecture firm and serves as vice-president of Friends of Marshall Square Park and chair of the fountain committee, said recently, “The original lower basin remained in place, but was filled with dirt and grass. About eight years ago, my office prepared a landscape plan for the area inside the antique iron fence which FMSP paid to have installed and maintained over the last eight years. That planting has since been removed in anticipation of the construction.”
Since the 1960s, piping had corroded, and there was plenty of work to be done.
“Several pieces of the structure of the fountain and a couple of bowls are missing and will be re-fabricated to match the original, multi-tiered fountain,” Walters said. “All new piping, electrical and plumbing work will be required as part of making the fountain operational. There will be substantial excavation required in preparing for the construction of the new basin and support for the fountain. A newly designed shed will be attached to the existing nearby building, which will safely house new pump equipment for the fountain. This shed will mimic the detailing on the existing building, and will have new landscaping that will provide screening.”
The moment when the time-traveling fountain again stands tall in the park will be a proud one for the group, but there have been other accomplishments since they first recognized how much history quietly existed inside the park.
The group traces the origin of the park to 1848, when a public square was established around the site of the public reservoir at the corner of Biddle and Matlack streets. It was named Marshall Square Park in honor of Humphry Marshall, a leading botanist from Marshallton. A bargain was struck with a local nurseryman, Paschall Morris, to established a nursery on the property, rent-free, for eight years. In exchange, he agreed to plant and cultivate trees selected by a committee. More than 150 trees of various species were selected, and an arboretum was born.
In 1856, Morris’ lease expired, the existing nursery stock was not maintained and the grounds fell into disrepair. In 1877, the borough appointed a committee to improve the park. Josiah Hoopes was hired for the task. He laid out walks, flower beds, shrubbery and buildings throughout the park. By 1878, the walks, benches and 20 beds of flowers were installed, and a Swiss cottage -- designed after the Swiss Pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia – was built, along with a large gazebo.
In 1885 it was decided that the old reservoir would be removed. In 1887, a Civil War monument dedicated to the 97th Pennsylvania Regiment was constructed in that location.
Since 2005, the Friends of Marshall Square Park have helped to preserve the Swiss cottage and the gazebo, put up a sign about the park and Humphry Marshall, and have completed a tree labeling project. They have installed historically appropriate benches as well.
The cost of restoring the fountain seemed out of reach, but fate has taken a hand.
Jeffrey Beitel, president of Friends of Marshall Square Park, donated all the architectural work required over the last eight years, and prepared all of the architectural drawings, through his company, Jeffrey C. Beitel Architecture. Walters served as the committee coordinator and worked with Beitel during the design process. She also lined up a fountain design company to prepare a detailed set of plans for the operation of the fountain. In June, a donation of $45,000 was made by Pat Loew, widow of the developer Jack Loew. A plaque honoring Jack Loew will be placed at the fountain, which will be named in his honor. As a result, the first phase of the project -- the restoration of the fountain, the basin and surrounding fence -- is fully funded. Fundraising for the second phase – which includes the restoration of the brick sidewalk surrounding the fountain, landscape beds and historically appropriate signage -- continues
“It would certainly have taken more time and effort without this donation, but we were never at the point of giving up,” Walters said. “There is a lot of support and enthusiasm in the neighborhood and within FMSP for this project. It has been our priority project for the last three years, and we have been very persistent with our efforts.”
Future funding for maintaining the fountain will come from an endowment set up by the Friends of Marshall Square Park.
“This fountain and the park belongs to the Borough of West Chester,” Walters said. “However, we have not requested, or been given, any funds from the borough for the project. The borough will pay for the electrical power and water usage to operate the fountain.
“The project has been fully endorsed by West Chester Borough Council and is overwhelmingly supported by our local residents,” Walters continued. “Jeff Beitel and I will continue coordinating together and with the contractors on a regular basis during the construction and installation of the fountain – and likely indefinitely. We will likely make daily site visits to review the construction progress.”
When the water is again trickling through the restored fountain, it will be a proud moment for the Friends group, and the community.
“Our fountain committee is very excited about the project and has been committed to the project since before we recovered the original fountain,” Walters said. “Everyone in the group will be thrilled to see this piece of history restored to the location in the park where it originally stood. We hope to make this gateway to West Chester a focal point for the borough and our park. We have plans to add landscaping and new walks, repair existing antique brick, and add signage to the area after the fountain is installed.”
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