In Olympia, one of the Washington State Capitol campus’ major features is the Tivoli Fountain, a replica of the Tivoli fountain in Copenhagen, Denmark. The fountain was a gift from the Olympia Tumwater Foundation which was initially formed to create the water feature. After a lengthy repair project, the fountain will be rededicated Friday, September 8, 2017. People will once again be able to enjoy its graceful water display.
The fountain has an interesting history. It traces its origins to Peter G. Schmidt Sr.’s 1949 visit to Denmark. Then president of the Olympia Brewing Company, he had succeeded his father and company founder Leopold Schmidt. Peter Schmidt was impressed with a fountain at Tivoli Gardens Park, an amusement park founded in 1843. That fountain in turn is a replica of a 16th century fountain at the Villa d’Este near Tivoli, Italy. The Villa’s expansive garden is widely considered by experts as one of the best surviving examples of Italian Renaissance design and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seeing the fountain in Denmark, Schmidt felt that the Capital Campus back in Olympia was lacking a key water feature. Contacting the Danish fountain’s architect Fritz Meyer, Schmidt brought several key parts back to the United States as well as plans for a water feature. He then founded the Olympia-Tumwater Foundation to complete the fountain project. Working with Fritz Meyer in Denmark and the firm of Joseph Wohleb, Robert Wohleb and Gordon S. Bennett in Olympia, the Foundation ordered the manufacturing and shipping of fountain parts to the United States.
In order for the fountain to be installed, Washington State first had to formally accept the gift from the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. State Senator Carlton I. Sears of Thurston County introduced a resolution to a joint session of the state legislature on January 22, 1951 “that we accept this imposing gift and assist in installing it in the center of the large oval area of the Capitol Grounds between the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines Memorial [Winged Victory Monument] and Capitol Way.”
Construction began soon afterward. Brewery workers and a contractor team led by Al Holman, future first mayor of Lacey, installed the fountain in what had been a grassy field on the Capitol campus facing Capitol Way. The water feature was dedicated on April 15, 1953 in a widely attended ceremony. Governor Arthur B. Langlie formally accepted the fountain on behalf of the state from the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. In his acceptance speech, Langlie expressed his wish that “100,000” people would be as eager to serve the state like the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. “I accept this fountain with the deepest of gratitude,” he concluded.
Peter G. Schmidt Sr.’s wife Clara was quoted in the Olympus, nearby Olympia High School’s newspaper, as saying, “The fountain will add beauty to the Washington State Capitol grounds.” Charles McKillip, mechanical technician for the Department of Buildings and Grounds (now the Department of Enterprise Services) was reported warning students that they “. . . will also have a nice place to eat their lunches if they keep the grounds and the fountain clean of all refuse.”
The fountain was a startling achievement. As described on the Department of Enterprise Service website, it consists of:
“an outer ring of 540 jets which create an umbrella of water, and inside of this are two rings of vertical spray jets rising out of large, tulip-shaped copper tubs. In the center of the fountain is its most striking feature, a central spout that shoots water approximately 25 feet into the air. All of the sprays alternately rise and fall together, creating five different artistic water displays while circulating 600 gallons of water a minute.”
For a time, colored lights added to the dazzle at night. But, sadly time ruins all. Over the years the fountain has needed several restoration projects. In the 1980s, all the copper tubs were replaced and wind sensors installed to automatically shut the fountain off in high winds.
After a major study in 2015, the fountain underwent its largest repair project in its history this summer. These repairs are intended to improve efficiency, conserve water and reduce maintenance. They include an updated electrical system based farther away from the water, a new vault and filtration system, new pipes and drains, and LED lighting. Additionally, the fountain base was poured at a higher level to reduce water usage and loss to spray, evaporation and leaking.
Like the fountain, the Olympia Tumwater Foundation is also a survivor and has grown into a very important and active community entity over the decades. They operate Tumwater Falls Park, offer a large number of college scholarships, manage the Schmidt House and support a series of history talks and river walk tours. The Foundation certainly has a right to be proud of the Tivoli Fountain which, after a long rest, will be viewable by the public in all its glory.
Thank you to Karen Johnson (Olympia Tumwater Foundation, Schmidt House Archives Curator) and Marygrace Goddu(Cultural Resources Manager, Washington State Department of Enterprise Services) for their assistance with research and images for this article.