It’s taken longer than expected, but the Gage Park Fountain, when it starts to bubble with water next spring will be in better shape than it has been in decades. The fountain reconstruction is just part of a major overhaul of Gage Park–the jewel of Hamilton’s east end that has begun to come to fruition. The fountain will look different to younger visitors to Gage Park because it will be restored to its original taller, 1927 design which means a 4 foot centre cylinder festooned with cherubs will be returned to the structure after sitting in a works yard for more than 20 years. It’s believed the feature was removed to compensate for poor water pressure in the 1980’s.
One can hear the excitement in Senior Conservator of Public Art and Monuments, Therese Charbonneau’s voice as she describes all of the planning—and improvisation that went into the restoration. The inscribed base of the fountain had been badly vandalized, as reported in the Bay Observer in 2009, and it was decided to completely rebuild it. “ We searched North America for limestone that would be hard enough to last,” Therese said. The limestone was taken offsite and hand carved by master carvers, Traditional Cut Stone. “ Then we discovered that the plumbing was in terrible shape and had to be completely rebuilt,–an expense we hadn’t counted on.” It is the plumbing work that delayed the opening of the fountain until next spring. However the fountain itself will be erected without water this fall. When the water des flow, visitors will be delighted that the turtles and ducks will once again be spewing water, as they did in the beginning.
It was vandalism that necessitated the $600,000 retrofit of the fountain and we wondered what will be done to prevent the structure from being vandalized again. “There is a security plan” Therese says, “I have talked to counterparts in Cleveland and they say 24 hour bright lighting has helped preserve monuments there. Some of the piers and balustrades will be coated with anti graffiti protection”. And there is discussion of installing security cameras, but the cost may be prohibitive, as well there is the issue of who monitors the cameras.
Gage Park fountain has a history that showcases some of the bright lights in the Depression-era arts scene in Canada. The original funding for the fountain came from Eugenia Gage, daughter of Robert Gage, a lawyer and property developer who made a fortune developing the neighborhoods around the park during and immediately after the Great War. The 67 acres that is now Gage Park would have been developed as housing as well but for the foresight of aldermen like Thomas Baker McQuesten who realized that with Hamilton’s rapid growth to the east, there would be a need for public parks. The property did not come cheaply. The city ended up paying $320,000 for the property which was roughly the market value of the land if it had been subdivided for residences. McQuesten wanted to rename the park after War of 1812 hero Sir Isaac Brock. This suggestion prompted Miss Gage to put up $20,000 of her own money to build a memorial fountain with the proviso that the park be named after Robert Gage. Thus we have one of the earliest examples of someone paying for naming rights—a common practice today with sports venues.
The development of the park combined some of the talents of Canada’s best artists and craftsmen. The design of the park itself fell to Howard Dunnington-Grubb one of Canada’s earliest and most successful landscape architects. Hamilton architect John Lyle designed the fountain and the terrace that surrounds it. Lyle was the architect for Union Station and the Royal Alexandria Theater in Toronto and of Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. The decorative turtles and ducks were creations of sculptor Florence Wyle who along with her partner Francis Loring became dominant figures in Canadian sculpture. For all of the talent brought to the task, the project was brought to fruition within the original $20,000 budget and was dedicated by Governor General Lord Willingdon in 1927.