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The Fountain Project

July 20, 2009

bennington rotary club
BENNINGTON - The ornate Victorian fountain that once stood in front of the Bennington Graded School has been largely restored, and plans are proceeding to have it placed in the small village park on South Street between the Court House and the old stone blacksmith shop that now houses the Better Bennington Corporation.

Jerry Albert, the chairman of the committee overseeing the project, said the expectation is that the fountain will be place and operating this year. Most of the restoration work -- which included rust removal and four coats of paint -- has been done by volunteers from the Bennington Rotary Club, which also donated $10,000 to the project.

The total cost of the project, which will include a large fountain basin, a retaining wall, a paved plaza, ornamental trees, flowers, benches and lighting, is expected to be approximately $80,000. Stu Hurd, Lisa Byer and John Shanahan are heading the fund-raising effort. Once in place, the town will maintain the fountain and assume the costs of lighting the park and running the water pump.

The park already includes the 9-11 Memorial Bench. A piece of twisted steel from the World Trade Center site will be added nearby. It was obtained by Rich Ryder, the host of the WBTN "Daybreak" radio show, who got it from the son of his friend, the late William Harris, of Pearl River, N.Y. Harris, who had been a volunteer firefighter for forty years, spent nine months at the site with his construction crew, first as a volunteer in the rescue efforts and then as a contractor helping with the demolition work. He contracted mercury poisoning and died last year.

The new design for the park was developed by Michael McDonough, a local architect long involved in historic preservation and local planning. In addition to the Bennington Rotary, the planning group included representatives from the town, the Better Bennington Corporation, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Master Gardeners Association, and Bennington in Bloom. Bennington Cooling & Heating will donate the piping and the pump for the fountain.

The fountain itself is about eight feet tall, with two ornate spill basins, a pineapple top, and a base decorated with cattails and otters. It originally was on the grounds of the Bennington Graded School, a large Renaissance style building on School Street that was built as part of a school consolidation project in 1874 and razed in 1954. Until 1914, the Graded School building also included the high school. It also included a Normal School where high school graduates could return to be trained as school teachers. The fountain was donated by A.B. Valentine, who owned a knitting mill behind the school, and it was saved by Milton Surdam just as it was about to be hauled off to the dump by demolition workers.

Surdam installed the fountain at his home, and his son, also named Milton, donated it back to the community after his father died. Both of the Surdams had attended the graded school, and the younger Surdam recalled the demolition workers being both amused and bewildered when his father asked for the fountain. "They asked him, "What do you want that thing for"?,"Surdam said. His father replied: "I’ve always liked it."

Such fountains were common in the Victorian era, and often were mass produced, like Civil War monuments. This one may have been a unique design, which McDonough describes as "whimsical," rather than classical, one bit of whimsy being the otters peering through the bullrushes at the base. Anne Bugbee, a member of the planning committee, says that Bennington once had a number of ornate fountains. In addition to this one from the Graded School, there was a large fountain at the Vermont Veterans' Home; another at the Henry Putnam mansion, which was torn down to make way for retail shops; a horse trough later converted into a drinking fountain for pedestrians in Old Bennington; a cobblestone fountain at St. Francis de Sales Elementary School; and another Victorian-era fountain at the far east end of Main Street, where Stewart’s is now located. The fountain at the Vermont Veterans Home still exists but hasn't operated in years. The drinking fountain in Old Bennington was restored and enhanced with a bronze sculpture of a lion's head by Elaine Franz Witten.

The Graded School fountain, which was restored with advice on rust removal from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, is now painted black, which Bugbee thinks may have been its original color. Old photographs show that at one point it was painted white. At another point it may have been painted green. Surdam says that when his father saved it from the scrap heap it was mostly rusted, but his family cleaned it up and painted it white, except for brown and green to highlight the otters and cattails at the base.

Anyone wanting to contribute to the project can send donations to the:
Town Managers Office
P.O. Box 469
Bennington, Vermont 05201
Please send a notation that the money is for the fountain fund.

bennington vermontClick here for a donation form to print and send in with your donation.

Author: Sally Sugarman (Club Member & Windmill Editor)

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