By James Churchill, Conservator, Kreilick Conservation LLC

Now that spring is in the air, we are delighted to reopen the recently restored Step Fountain. Generously funded by the William B. Dietrich Foundation, the restoration project was completed by Kreilick Conservation, LLC with the help of contractors Pullman SST Inc. and PondWorks towards the end of 2020. The fountain houses an unusual yet beautiful pairing of Indiana limestone and Pennsylvania bluestone with a Wissahickon schist and concrete foundation.

The Step Fountain was designed by the architect, Robert Rodes McGoodwin, a graduate and instructor architect of our very own University of Pennsylvania. A trustee of the School of Fine Arts, he designed Houston Hall, the University Hospital and dormitories, and the Horace Howard Furness Shakespeare Reading Room (now Arthur Ross Gallery) in the renowned Frank Furness library (now Fisher Fine Arts Library). Mostly known for residential design around the Arboretum’s neighborhood, he was also involved with the developer of French Village. As with the large majority of early twentieth-century American architects, he was heavily influenced by French neoclassicism, studying under Paul Cret, before travelling to Europe to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the American Academy in Rome.

Commissioned by Lydia Morris after her brother John’s death in 1915, architectural drawings indicate the design was complete by March 1916. The fountain is an eclectic choice for the picturesque English garden which it inhabits. Symmetrical, the fountain faces north-north-east and is on axis with the now-demolished family mansion, Compton. Alongside the Temple of Mercury and the Swan Pond tholos, it stands as a later and contrasting neo-classical addition that draws on European baroque architecture displaying signature curved scrolls, pilasters and balusters. The fountain supplies water through three lion heads.

Fig. 1 Façade architectural drawing of Step Fountain, Morris Arboretum, March 1916.

The restoration included replacement of the limestone cheek walls inside of the pedestrian steps and the bluestone water steps, heavily eroded after years of use. After several attempts to mitigate decades of pollution, wandering lawnmowers and general wear and tear, architectural conservators worked to conserve existing fabric, and reinstall an up-to-date plumbing system that can hopefully last for another hundred years to come. When the water was turned back on, multiple members climbed the hill in response to the dramatic sound that the water produced as it lapped against the wave-shaped crests of the new bluestone. The newly planted flower beds and serpentine path refresh the fountain’s landscape and offer another tranquil path to explore in English Park.