Go tell it on the fountain
Restoring a historic Reno fountain took four years and a lot of tenacity
Tucked away on the bottom level of the Amtrak station on Commercial Row is a little known piece of Reno’s history. It’s a fountain, commissioned and dedicated more than 100 years ago by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Red Cross Society.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local chapters of the WCTU—a national women’s organization—paid for the construction of water fountains in cities across the country. Their motivation was two-fold. The first was to create a place where all creatures could get a drink. The second was to give men an alternative to saloons when they were thirsty.
Reno’s fountain was equipped with a basin for horses and one for dogs, as well as two fountains for humans. It was dedicated in October 1908 and also served as a memorial to the men of First Nevada Volunteer Cavalry who served in the Spanish American War.
For several decades, Reno’s WCTU fountain sat in the heart of downtown on the southwest corner of Virginia and Plaza Streets. Later, it was moved to Idlewild Park, where it was allowed to fall into disrepair. Eventually, its light stanchions and horse trough were torn away and carted off by vandals.
By the 1990s, the WCTU fountain was barely recognizable—its place in Reno’s history seemingly lost to time.The battle
In the early 2000s, two local historians and longtime friends, Neal Cobb and David Hollecker, sat on the City of Reno's Historical Resources Commission. Their job was to advise city officials on matters related to historic preservation. Often, the pair needed a reminder that their role in city historic preservation efforts was limited to “advising.”
“That fell on deaf ears for Dave and I,” Cobb recalled.
This was especially true when Hollecker and Cobb decided it was high time that the WCTU fountain be removed from Idlewild Park—where people had long since begun using it as a trash can and urinal. The pair wanted the fountain restored and placed somewhere the public could enjoy it and learn about its history.
According to Cobb and Hollecker, they received several warnings from city officials who felt they were overstepping their advisory bounds. But they pressed ahead, seeking support and potential funding sources for a restoration project. Sometimes, Hollecker said, it’s necessary to “just do it. Otherwise, it’s not going to be done.”
During the early stages of their bid for restoration, Hollecker and Cobb turned to local artist Loren Jahn, whose artistic interpretations of historical Reno landmarks grace the pages of many books and even the walls of the Washoe County Courthouse.
Jahn studied grainy photos of the fountain from Cobb’s extensive historical photo collection and scoured the West Coast looking for examples of other WCTU fountains, which he used as inspiration in creating an artist rendering of what Reno’s WCTU fountain would have looked like in its original condition. The rendering was presented to the mayor, city council and potential donors to the project.
“Sometimes it just takes a picture to show people how something could look, the possibilities,” Jahn said.
In 2005, Cobb and Hollecker got approval from the city of Reno to move forward with the restoration project. The friends had managed to raise $5,800 and secured additional public arts funding tied to the Reno train trench project (ReTRAC).
The funding was enough to get the project underway, but, going forward, its success continued to rely on the generosity of locals who donated funds, time and skilled labor to the project.The build
Among the volunteers was Chris Dewitt, a 35-year veteran of the restoration department at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City. He recalled first seeing the WCTU fountain at Idlewild Park in the early '90s.
“It was painted primer red,” Dewitt said. “It did not have the lamp arms on it, and it didn’t have the top globe on it. It didn’t have the dog bowl, and it didn’t have the horse trough. It was sort of neglected, sitting off to the side and obviously not of any great significance to anybody. And I wanted that thing so bad. I loved it. I wanted that piece of iron in my yard.”
Dewitt was thrilled when Jahn got him involved in the restoration. The work took place over the course of three months and included building entirely new parts for the fountain to match the ones that had disappeared over the years.
The fountain is comprised of several sections, which, according to Dewitt, stack together like the layers of a cake. Originally, these layers relied on gravity to hold them together. While the layers are hollow, the fountain still weighs several tons. Before it could be moved to a busy public space, Dewitt had to devise a way to keep it from toppling over in the event of an earthquake. He used an original trap door to get inside the fountain and install a reinforcement system. He also fabricated a new horse trough, dog bowl and decorative emblem for the fountain. But the work wasn’t done yet.
The layers upon layers of red paint that were added to the fountain over the years had been stripped away, and it needed to be repainted. For this, Dewitt turned to Jahn, who recommended a color scheme and painting technique that mimics the patina of aged bronze.
Jahn also solved the last piece of the restoration puzzle—replacement light stanchions for the fountain. He came into possession of them by chance when a member of the Historic Reno Preservation Society called him to see if he might have use for two light fixtures she’d kept in her backyard for years. They were a great match for the fountain. According to Dewitt, they’re identical to the stanchions that once graced the Virginia Street bridge.The bequest
The WCTU fountain was rededicated in a small ceremony at the Amtrak station on Nov. 15, 2007—just over 99 years after its original dedication. It was a much needed win for local historic preservationists who'd suffered a disappointing blow when the Reno City Council voted earlier that year to demolish the historic Virginia Street Bridge.
It’s been nine years now since the fountain was placed in the Amtrak station. Back in June, the Virginia Street Bridge finally came down. These days, Cobb and Hollecker often meet at Harrah’s for lunch. On a Wednesday afternoon in January, they walked over to the Amtrak station afterward. There they recounted a little known tidbit about the restoration project—the historic photos and accompanying texts that line the walls were placed in the Amtrak station without permission from the City of Reno or Amtrak administrators. True to form, Cobb and Hollecker weren’t willing to risk a potentially long wait for approval, so they called upon friend and professional framer Dave Pirtle to frame and hang the photos for them.