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The Point: The Fountain at The Point


The Fountain at Point State Park in Pittsburgh

From Carnegie Magazine, Summer 1985. Derived from Thomas E. Morgan's essay, "The Plume of Pittsburgh".
No other large American city has a spectacular fountain as its symbol and visual focal point. St. Louis has its arch; Philadelphia, Independence Hall; New York, the Statue of Liberty; San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge; and Seattle, the Space Needle. The one European city boasting a fine fountain as a main attraction is Geneva, Switzerland, where a jet of water rises out of Lake Geneva to perhaps 400 feet, the highest such fountain in the world.
But the fountain in Pittsburgh is conceived as one of the most dramatic displays of water to be seen anywhere. It is unique in its use of great jets of water, its computer-controlled water height, its changes in illumination at night, and in its building materials. However, its most remarkable and least understood feature is its construction. It stands anchored at the confluence of the three rivers in such a way as to keep it "down," resisting the surrounding pressure of the river waters to force it "up," and it draws its water supply not from the visible waters which pass by it, but from an unnamed fourth river, subterranean, passing from the north to the south 54 feet below the surface of the Pittsburgh Point.

The site of the fountain at the origin of the Ohio River has historic significance, familiar to most Western Pennsylvanians. Young George Washington, in viewing the site in 1753, noted that "the Land in the Fork" was "extremely well suited to a Fort, as it has the absolute command of the Rivers." This observation has led some to credit Washington with the "founding" of Pittsburgh, through his early estimate of the potential of the site. And, as schoolchildren learn, it was at this very same point that General John Forbes and the British Army defeated the French in 1758, thereby determining the future development of the Colonies under English control.

In 1964, when Point State Park was dedicated, Dr. Maurice K. Goddard, Secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources, noted that the park "...symbolizes a milepost in our early history...the spirit of the pioneer in planting Anglo-Saxon civilization on the American frontier." During the planning stage of the park the landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold observed in Landscape Architecture (XLVI: 4, July, 1956), p. 200) that he and his associates were following the Biblical wisdom of rendering unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's, and unto God the things that were God's: "Certainly Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth have given Caesar more than his share of the city's physical planning, and now God is entitled to have at least eighteen acres of Point Park dedicated to His rivers, His forests, His horizon."

Point State Park, completed after nearly three decades of planning, now includes 36 acres, of which one-fifth is devoted to the fountain. The architects of the fountain are Stotz, Hess, MacLachlan & Foster, of Pittsburgh, who also were the architectural designers of the park from the beginning. Also involved from the beginning was the Pittsburgh landscape architecture firm of Griswold, Winters, Swain and Mullin. The general contractor for the fountain construction was the F. J. Busse Company, Inc., which also built the special concrete "champagne-glass" overlooks on Mt. Washington, which permit visitors to look down upon the city. Consulting engineers for the fountain were Meyer, Strong and Jones, of New York.

Completed by the General State Authority, the park and fountain were dedicated on August 30, 1974, and officially conveyed to the Bureau of State Parks, Department of Environmental Resources. The total state investment in Point State Park is $17,000,000 exclusive of highway connections. Of this sum the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania invested approximately $3,000,000 in the last phase of the park, including the development of one-fifth of the park land area and the construction of the fountain. The fountain itself cost less than $1,000,000.

Contrary to assumption, water in the fountain of Point State Park comes not from the visible Three Rivers but from an "unknown" and unnamed fourth river of Pittsburgh. This fountain source is a subterranean river about 54 feet below the surface at the Point. The river cavity is wider than the Golden Triangle. Called the Wisconsin Glacial Flow by geologists, it was formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet that covered much of the Northern United States during the Ice Age of 70,000 years ago. Today it flows south from beneath the Great Lakes and under Western Pennsylvania; at Pittsburgh's Point it flows due south, contrary to the Three Rivers. Its water is fresh and pure, 55 degrees, with no bacteriological count, and is actually the source of drinking water for some downtown Pittsburgh buildings which have wells sunk into it. This underground glacial stream is considered a never-ending source of water for the fountain.

Like an iceberg, 90 percent of the fountain is unseen. Under the Pump House is a large inverted "second story" building into which water is pumped from the underground river, stored, and fed into the fountain. Any water loss is made up here by a pump that reaches to the underground river. The Pump House is completely waterproof, with doors and windows like those of a submarine or swimming pool. Up until a Three Rivers flood goes over the roof of the Pump House, it will stay dry. In general, a flood will mean no disaster to the fountain, but merely a cleaning task, and of course repair to the adjoining landscaped grounds. The underground river itself never floods.
Strong caissons act like dandelion roots to anchor the fountain and keep the whole structure from rising on the water. This unique problem--of keeping the fountain from floating--is emphasized by Robert R. Busse, the fountain builder:

Construction of a normal building today involves putting down a spread footing, then building walls on top of that. The footing keeps your walls from sinking into the dirt. But the special problem at the Point is not soft dirt to sink in but rising water pressure from beneath to push you up, particularly when any of the Three Rivers rises. The architects had to design, and we had to build, to keep things from rising, not sinking. So we constructed this one monumental structure by driving 130 caissons, or large chambered steel pipes, down 60 feet and then filled them with concrete. Then we attached the structure on top by a concrete ring. The whole construction idea is to keep the fountain down, not up.

The fountain is controlled by computer, and is programmed to operate automatically by a data processing system. It can also be run manually by pushbutton. Wind velocity at the Point is registered on a Selsyn anemometer which controls the height of the water column. Thus, during a strong wind, the water column is reduced so that the spray will not affect bystanders.
Two powerful 250-horsepower pumps drive the column of water into the air, creating a jet two feet in diameter and capable of 200 feet in height. A third 250-horsepower pump can join the other two to create a wider but lower column of water. The three pumps together force a total of 6,000 gallons of water per minute into the air, a pressure roughly equivalent to that of nearly 2,000 home water spigots turned on at full tilt. The circular basin of the fountain, 200 feet in diameter, collects the 73,000 gallons in the system for recirculation. Three subordinate peacock-tail pumps of 75-horsepower each, individually push 1,000 gallons of water per minute to create a fan design about the main column. The fountain is illuminated by 24 white and gold quartz-iodine lights placed in the fountain hub, and the side sprays by separate underwater fixtures. At night, with its shifting colors from white to gold, the illuminated fountain dominates the Point.

First developed architecturally by Charles Stotz, the fountain project was completed by his successor Louis R. Fosner, assisted by William W. Hartlep. In keeping with the designs of landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold, the fountain is landscaped with several acres of granite and flagstone from the area. The limestone flagstones were quarried at French Creek, Pennsylvania. Some 30,000 of Pittsburgh's "Belgian blocks" or cobblestones, saved from the road surface of the old Point Bridge, now torn down, were installed by stone craftsmen. Other stones at the fountain were saved from the bridge piers, also dismantled.

The City of Pittsburgh now maintains Point State Park and the largest fountain in America through its Department of Parks and Recreation, under a reimbursement arrangement with the Bureau of State Parks. In so doing, the City also maintains its own new symbol.


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