Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 24, 2014 2:15 p.m.
While newcomers to Fernandina Beach may think that the Crane Fountain on Centre Street has always been there, old timers know that it has not. Although it is often called the Courthouse Fountain, it is unrelated to the courthouse. It has been called the Crane Fountain because of the depictions of cranes in the fountain design. The decision to locate a fountain in proximity to the courthouse was made as part of the major 1978 streetscaping of Centre Street. At that time, Centre Street was a wide thoroughfare with above-ground electric lines and poles, traffic lights and parking meters.
The redesign of Centre Street to make it a more pedestrian-friendly place to visit was not without controversy. But the arrival of the resorts at the south end of the island caused many local business and government leaders to decide to spiff up the city’s business district in hopes of cashing in on what was rightly envisioned as a new tourist boom for Fernandina Beach. Landscaping and seating areas were added to what was once a stark streetscape, along with improved lighting. And a fountain was added in the place where the crane fountain stands today.
According to January 1986 minutes of the Restoration Foundation’s Executive Board, the new fountain with its modern, massive design looked so bad that some members suggested that it should be turned into a flower planter. In September of that year, the Restoration Foundation decided that its primary project for 1987 would be replacing the fountain with one more appropriate to the history and architecture of Fernandina.
As reported in minutes dated July 21, 1987, then Foundation President Patricia Williams and her husband Aubrey had located a replacement that was almost identical to the fountain once located at the city’s waterworks. It was produced by Robinson Ironworks Foundry in Alexandria City, Alabama. The Williams’ had spotted it by chance while driving through the area.
Foundation minutes dated May 22, 1989 reported that the fountain had finally been installed. But as late as July 11, 1990, there was still no resolution to the question of who—city, county, Restoration Foundation—would pay for the water in the fountain. But that issue was resolved (city), and it was reported on August 28 of that year that the fountain at the courthouse was finally working. In 1991 the Restoration Foundation voted to honor past president Pat Williams’ efforts to secure and install the fountain with a memorial plaque.
While it seemed clear to many in the Restoration Foundation that they had purchased the fountain with the understanding that the city would clean and maintain the fountain, it did not appear equally clear to the city. The effects of weather and hard water began to take their toll on the fountain, which sometimes had to be turned off. George T. Davis, prominent local historian and member of the Restoration Foundation, at one point took it upon himself to collect the coins that were being thrown into the fountain by visitors to purchase Clorox to clean the fountain. Davis would periodically trek from his home in the Historic District to the fountain with cleaning supplies, climb into the fountain, and scrub it down. When Davis became too infirm to continue the task, it seemed to many that the fountain stood in No Man’s Land, with no organization or government claiming responsibility for its care and proper functioning.
As he stated in his open letter, Aubrey Williams called attention to the sorry state of the fountain when he returned to Fernandina Beach after a ten-year absence. He brought the matter to the attention of the Restoration Foundation, which conducted some preliminary investigations on repair costs. The foundry estimated that it would cost more than $10,000 to repair the fountain, whereas a replacement would cost about $15,000.
The fate of the Crane Fountain is currently in limbo. Further investigation will need to be done to determine whether it is indeed a good investment to repair the existing fountain, or whether it should be replaced. The Restoration Foundation has maintained that their responsibility for the fountain ended with its installation; at that time it was turned over to the city. Hopefully, all parties will agree to find a satisfactory resolution to the current situation.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.