Ever since I moved to the Grant Park neighborhood two and a half years ago, I've wondered what the story was with that neglected, garbage-strewn fountain near the Ormond Street entrance to the park. You probably know the fountain I mean, the metal one with the rust and peeling coat of blue-white paint, the one that's half-hidden by overgrown grasses and spouts weeds instead of water.
I took a closer look the other day and found that it's really a very beautiful fountain--made of bronze, mounted on lions' feet, and elaborately ornamented with old-fashioned dolphins, sea horses, and curling waves. The fountain's upper tiers are missing now, but inside the main pool the pedestal on which the tiers were mounted can still be seen. The pedestal is decorated with curving fish tails and the words "Glorious Water, Glorious Water."
The fountain sits on a marble platform backed by a curving marble bench. And the bench is no less elaborate than the fountain: its arms are dolphins, and its sides feature undersea scenes complete with carved seaweed and crabs. On the back of the bench, the twelve signs of the Zodiac are engraved, while above them an inscription reads: "This Fountain Is Erected in Memory of Judge John Erskine by His Daughter." I decided to do some research and find out more about this forgotten monument and the man it was erected to honor.
Here's what I discovered: The Erskine memorial fountain arrived in Grant Park in 1912 after being removed from its original home at the intersection of Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets. Soon after the fountain's removal from the intersection, both streets were widened.
The fountain was first given to the city of Atlanta in 1896 in honor of Judge John Erskine, an Irish immigrant who had served as a United States judge for the district court of Georgia from 1865 to 1883. A long time resident of Atlanta (his house on Peachtree Street was torn down in 1864 and used for timber to build cabins for Sherman's troops), the judge had always wanted to give a fountain to his adopted hometown. When he died before he got the chance, his daughter, Mrs. Willard P. Ward, carried out her father's wish.
Mrs. Ward commissioned New York sculptor J. Massey Rhind to create a fountain that would serve as a public memorial to her father. Rhind was a very distinguished artist. Commisssioned by William Waldorf Astor, he had designed the famous memorial doors of Trinity Church in New York in honor of Astor's deceased father. Rhind came to Atlanta for the fountain's formal unveiling and was on hand to receive compliments on his creation, which was then considered to be one of Atlanta's most notable landmarks.
The May 1896 unveiling attracted big crowds and was quite a social event, the Constitution reporting that "elegant invitations were issued by Mrs. Ward to a large number of Atlanta's leading and influential citizens." Colonel Robert J. Lowry, a close personal friend of Judge Erskine, presented the fountain to the city on behalf of the judge's daughter.
In his presentation speech Colonel Lowry praised Judge Erskine as a "fearless public servant," proclaiming that "in his office as federal judge, standing as he did between the federal government and the people of Georgia during the bitter days after the war, [Judge Erskine] did as much as any other one man to heal the wound between the north and the south by his just but merciful administration of laws enacted under the influence of passion."
Accepting the fountain on behalf of the city, Mayor Porter King declared, "I sometimes fear we [Atlantans] are not altogether as considerate of the beautiful, the artistic, and the aesthetic as wisdom would suggest. . . Let [the fountain] be sacredly guarded and cared for by those charged with the responsibility of municipal government, and let such expressions of love and filial duty and such recognition of real worth be commended to the emulation of others."
Sixteen years later, the regrading of Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets in the summer of 1912 left the fountain stranded four feet above street level. By this time the city was no longer keeping the fountain clean, and many neighborhood residents began to complain that it was an eyesore and to ask that it be removed. After a few months of controversy, the Erskine memorial fountain was finally relocated to Grant Park's Ormond Street entrance in December 1912.
(John Erskine, jurist; b. Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland, Sept. 13, 1813; m. Rebecca Smith 1851, 1 daughter (Mrs. Willard P. Ward). Admitted FLA bar 1841, moved to Newnan, GA then Atlanta, GA 1855. Strongly opposed succession. US Judge, District of GA 1866-1882. Died Atlanta January 27, 1895.)