By Jim McCloskey
In my pre-WaterShapes days, I worked for a publishing company that specialized in technical and scientific magazines. My job there in the early 1980s was starting new magazines, one after another.
The work involved extensive travel, frequently to Washington, D.C., where I’d attend trade shows and sometimes visit government offices. In 1982, for instance, I had an appointment at what was then the Veterans Administration: We were looking to start a magazine called VA Practitioner, and a big first step involved getting clearance from the VA’s chief medical officer.
I was only 26 at the time, but by 1982 I’d already done extensive work with a variety of distinguished professionals. In this case, however, I was unprepared for the man I met: He was a doctor, which was no problem, but he was also in uniform as a multi-starred admiral in an office the size of a tennis court and, walking in, I suddenly felt much shorter and far younger than I had been when I’d reached the lobby.
Happily, he was good with our idea – but he wanted to see something tangible that would reflect where we were heading with the concept. It was Wednesday, he wanted the mockup for a meeting Friday, and I was 3,000 miles away from my office and support staff. So I knew in making my farewells that I had a lot of thinking to do before I hopped on a plane that evening.
I was staying at a hotel down the street from the VA’s headquarters, but after about five minutes in my room, I realized that I needed to walk and think. From my window I could see, maybe a mile away, a big traffic circle with a park and fountain in the middle. I packed up, checked my bag at the bell desk and headed down the street a few minutes later.
The distant landmark was, I learned that day, Dupont Circle, and the watershape in the middle was the Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont Memorial Fountain, which I considered karmic given the experience I’d just had with another high-ranking gentleman of the naval persuasion. It was a warm fall day, the fountain cooled the air and muted the background noise and I settled into my meditations, getting up and pacing around the waterfeature from time to time.
Long afterward, I read that the fountain had been designed and executed by Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French, the team that gave the world the nearby Lincoln Memorial. The fountain they devised for the space replaced an older heroic sculpture, also dedicated to Dupont, that had been one of 18 monuments built to commemorate key participants in the Civil War. The Dupont family apparently didn’t much care for the original sculpture and had the wherewithal to do something about it. They commissioned Bacon and French in 1917, and the new fountain was dedicated in 1921.
It’s had an interesting history since then: Apparently vandals have been inclined for whatever weird reason to snap the fingers off the nautically themed Sea, Stars and Wind sculptures arrayed beneath the fountain’s bowl. Adding insult to that sort of injury, when a traffic underpass was built beneath the fountain in 1948, nobody bothered to account for and reconnect the plumbing. It was another year before the water started flowing again.
As for my own Dupont Circle ponderings, the hour or so I spent near the falling water had a remarkable mind-clearing effect, and my initial panic soon gave way to confidence. By the time I needed to head back to collect my bags and catch a ride to National Airport, I had conceptualized and sketched out page after page and was ready the next day to pull together the mockup that ultimately persuaded the other admiral I’d sat with the day before that we were worthy of his approval.
It’s an unusually memorable and special place for me, given that fateful day. But it’s also a great fountain, perfectly proportioned, beautifully rendered and well worth seeing. And even with the nearby rush of traffic, I know from experience that it’s a great space for collecting your thoughts!