Since 1871, the Tyler Davidson Fountain has symbolized Queen City pride, gracing Fountain Square, the civic heart of our city. And yet, as this icon approaches its 150th birthday, many Cincinnatians remain unaware of some of its most curious lore. Here are 17 things you might not know about Cincinnati’s favorite fountain:
1. It’s a drinking fountain.
Yes, the Tyler Davidson Fountain is a work of art but it was designed as a drinking fountain. You can still get a drink from the four statuary spigots surrounding the Genius of Water. The basins under each drinking fountain were intended to provide refreshment for horses and dogs.
2. Originally, each drinking fountain had an attached drinking cup.
Into the 1800s, before the germ theory of disease caught on, all drinking fountains had metal cups on chains for drinking purposes since slurping from a spigot was considered unseemly. At its dedication, the Tyler Davidson Fountain was equipped with specially designed bronze cups. As late as 1987, at least two of these cups were reportedly still chained in place, although cups at other local fountains had been removed for hygienic concerns.
3. The fountain once provided ice-cold water.
Underneath the fountain, as originally installed, was a cooling chamber, filled with ice and lined by a network of 2,000 feet of pipe through which the water for the drinking fountains flowed during the summer months. This underground ice chamber measured twelve feet deep and ten feet square, entered through an iron door in the surface of the esplanade.
4. The fountain is a monument to Temperance.
The Tyler Davidson Fountain is among many Victorian monuments known as Temperance fountains. It was intended to keep Cincinnatians out of the downtown saloons. When Henry Probasco and his brother-in-law and business partner, Tyler Davidson, envisioned the fountain in the 1850s, the only way to get a drink of water in downtown Cincinnati was from a saloon or coffeehouse.
5. The fountain’s donor ended up broke.
Henry Probasco was among Cincinnati’s richest men. As a partner in Tyler Davidson & Co., wholesale hardware merchants, he built a magnificent mansion in Clifton named Oakwood and collected art and rare books. Twenty years after he paid for the fountain, his money was gone and he was beset by creditors. He sold off the house, the books and the art. Only the intervention of friends, who arranged a job as president of Spring Grove Cemetery saved Probasco from complete destitution.
6. The fountain’s rededication plaque is on display in Green Township.
When the Tyler Davidson Fountain was rededicated for its 100th birthday in 1971 a bronze plaque mounted on a pedestal was added, explaining the history of the fountain and the generosity of Frederick Hauck, who paid for the restoration. During the 2006 redesign of the Square, the pedestal was placed in storage, where it was discovered by a representative of the German American Citizens League, who talked the city into donating it. It is now on display outside the League’s museum on West Fork Road in Monfort Heights.
7. The fountain’s bronze is army surplus from Denmark.
In 1864, on his way to unifying Germany, Otto von Bismarck of Prussia defeated the Kingdom of Denmark in a dispute over the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. To recoup the costs of the war, the Danes held a national garage sale. The Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry in Munich purchased many old bronze Danish cannons. Twenty-four tons of this Danish scrap were melted down to create the Tyler Davidson Fountain.
8. The fountain’s sculpture was considered radically avant-garde.
Legend has it that sculptor August von Kreling designed the fountain one beer-soaked evening at foundry owner Ferdinand von Mueller’s house in Munich. Seized with inspiration, von Kreling sketched his concept for a fountain on a tablecloth, using a lit cigar as his pencil – to the horror of Frau von Mueller. The design was radical because it features actual human beings instead of mythological deities or legendary figures. The foundry owner loved the innovation but could not find a customer for the unconventional design until Henry Probasco wandered into the shop 25 years later.
9. Fountain Square is, technically, one of Cincinnati’s public markets.
Sometime before 1815, a market was constructed along Fifth Street when that thoroughfare was essentially the northern boundary of the city. By the 1860s, the Fifth Street Market was occupied almost entirely by butchers and almost everyone agreed it was pretty disgusting. When Cincinnati decided to build Fountain Square on the site, the butchers sued and their case went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. The butchers lost and, three days later, the city sent an army of workmen, guarded by a battalion of police, to demolish the old market. The butchers claimed that an early deed mandated that the location was to be used as a market in perpetuity. The city obliged by installing a little metal cart for selling flowers. Every year, the mayor ceremonially bought one flower, for one cent, to maintain the terms of the deed.
10. Fountain Square once featured public potties.
Old photos of Fountain Square show a massive metallic pillar at the eastern end of the esplanade. This structure was functional as well as decorative – it provided ventilation for a “comfort station” or public restroom installed under Fountain Square in 1907. The downtown restrooms were so successful that the city built some more at Peeble’s Corner in Walnut Hills.
11. A prehistoric earthwork once covered Fountain Square.
Robert Clarke, in his book about prehistoric earthworks constructed by ancient inhabitants of the Ohio River valley, described a huge elliptical mound extending from the west side of Race street nearly to Walnut, and from a little above Fifth Street to a little below Fourth Street. This mound appears on Daniel Drake’s 1815 map of the city.
12. You can find a piece of the fountain in England.
Although Ferdinand von Mueller (often Anglicized as “von Miller”), director of the Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry, gave Henry Probasco exclusive right to the designs created by August von Kreling for the “Genius of Water” and associated sculptures, he did sell one piece to another customer. A copy of the young woman giving her father a cup of medicinal water was erected in 1885 near London Bridge. Ten years later, it was moved to Clapham Commons, south-west of London within the Borough of Lambeth, where it overlooks a drinking fountain to this day.
13. The hands of the Genius of Water are replacements.
When originally installed, the Tyler Davidson Fountain was supplied by two different sources of water. The drinking fountains pumped water from the normal city pipes running along Fifth Street. The decorative fountains up above got a direct feed from the huge water tanks once located atop Mount Auburn. That high pressure made a spectacular display, but also carried along a lot of mud which, in less than a year, clogged up the fountain. A clumsy plumber in June 1872 attempted to improve the flow by reaming out the delicate openings in the hands of the Genius of Waters. The result was a disaster, with waterfall-like spumes deluging the esplanade. The Royal Bavarian Foundry had to send replacement hands for installation. It was reported that the original bronze hands were donated to one of Cincinnati’s medical colleges.
14. Henry Probasco donated another landmark fountain to Cincinnati.
Well, technically, Probasco donated a fountain to Clifton, which was an independent village at the time. Probasco served as mayor of Clifton before that suburb was annexed by Cincinnati and his grand estate, Oakwood, is located there .Probasco’s second fountain is located on Clifton Avenue at the intersection with Woolper. The Clifton Probasco Fountain, bronze and 10 feet high, is designed to allow comfortable drinking by humans, horses, dogs and birds.
15. Cincinnati has another sculpture cast at the Munich foundry.
The bronze statue of a Civil War soldier known as “The Sentinel” in Spring Grove Cemetery was also cast at Ferdinand von Mueller’s Royal Bavarian Foundry. It predates Fountain Square. The lonely soldier was sculpted by Randolph Rogers and cast in Munich in 1865.
16. In honor of Henry Probasco’s gift, Fifth Street was renamed Probasco Place.
Almost as soon as the Fifth Street Market was demolished, Cincinnatians began referring to that portion of the street as “Probasco Place.” City Council attempted to make the name official after the fountain was dedicated in 1871 by asking the city solicitor to draw up an ordinance extending the designation from Vine all the way east to Main. Although the newspapers and several businesses referred to “Probasco Place” in print until 1880 or so, usage eventually drifted back to “Fifth Street.”
17. Nobody really knows who the naked woman is.
Way back in 1875, just a few years after the fountain was dedicated, Mr. Daniel J. Kenny, an advertising salesman for the Cincinnati Gazette, published a remarkably useful book titled “Illustrated Cincinnati: A Pictorial Hand-Book of the Queen City,” within which he opines that the semi-nude woman leading her joyfully unclothed boy to the bath is, in fact, Thusnelda, wife of Arminius (aka “Herman the German”) who defeated Rome’s legions at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. Which is all well and good, but there is a competing theory that this maternal beauty represents one Lola Montez (aka Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld) an actress of Irish and possibly Spanish extraction who was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who was the patron of Ferdinand von Mueller’s bronze foundry. The bottom line is, sculptor August von Kreling didn’t tell and isn’t telling.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities