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Work underway to restore an Iron Range 'showstopper'

VIRGINIA -- The fountain at Olcott Park was a marvel in its day. Its 1930s technology allowed it to have different water formations and color combinations, drawing so many people from the region that the police had to provide traffic control.

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Greg Gilness (from left), Camilla Hudy, Paul Monacelli and Eleanor Anshus are helping lead the effort to restore the fountain and pool in Olcott Park in Virginia, Minn The fountain - seen behind them in this photo taken in August 2015 - drew visitors from a wide area after opening in 1937, but has fallen into disrepair in recent years. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

VIRGINIA - The fountain at Olcott Park was a marvel in its day. Its 1930s technology allowed it to have different water formations and color combinations, drawing so many people from the region that the police had to provide traffic control.

"We moved from the south side to the north side in 1944. My mom brought us here every day," Eleanor Anshus said last month as she sat on a bench on the top of a hillside overlooking the fountain.

Paul Monacelli, a fellow Virginia resident, added, "It was so vibrant back then."

The fountain would rotate through more than 300 different colors and spray patterns every hour, with a stone walkway encircling the fountain's pool and a viewing platform overlooking the water. At the time, the fountain shared the park with a zoo whose bevy of animals included monkeys, black and grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, along with huge flower displays designed and nurtured by a full-time horticulturalist, recalled Camilla Hudy of Aurora.

"It was a showstopper back in the day," Hudy said.

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The one-of-a-kind fountain is now a stone pile covered with a wooden board and hasn't operated since 2013. In its later years, the water spray didn't reach half of the 30-foot height seen decades ago. The fountain's replacement parts aren't available anymore. The pool leaks water and now sits empty, with the floor crumbling in places. Tall trees block the view from the viewing platform, and the stone walkways are covered by overgrown grass.

"Over the years it just kind of aged. The trees grew too high. The fountain parts became harder and harder to get," said Greg Gilness of Virginia. Anshus added, "It's a shame not to have it."

As the fountain has deteriorated, it has drawn vandals, Gilness said. In addition to spray painting graffiti, vandals have removed a few stones lining the fountain's pool and some of the boulders lining the small hillside surrounding the fountain.

Anshus, Monacelli, Hudy and Gilness are part of a committee that has formed to raise money to restore the fountain to its previous showstopping appearance - something they hope will become a destination for residents and visitors alike.

Depression-era project

"It was an intricate fountain. You don't buy it at Menards. You would be overwhelmed as a kid seeing it," said Gilness, who is the brainchild behind the restoration effort.

In addition to 30 city employees, 70 unemployed Virginia residents were given jobs constructing the fountain, a project of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration that put people to work on public works projects. The fountain cost $36,000 at the time - the equivalent of $595,000 today - and 70 percent of the cost was paid by the WPA.

At the time of the fountain's construction, the city was just beginning the process to purchase Olcott Park. It had been leasing the land from U.S. Steel for $1 per year since 1905 and formally purchased it in 1938 for $9,015, according to Gilness.

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The fountain was constructed on the foundation of the park superintendent's house, which was moved to a different area of the park where it still stands today.

Two years of construction came to fruition when the fountain's water began to flow for the public to view on Aug. 16, 1937, Monacelli said.

The night before, the fountain was turned on for the workers as a trial run, going through all its different water sprays and colors.

Ardys Nelson was a child at that time, living at Olcott Park while her father Carl Hawkinson was the parks superintendent. She saw the fountain turned on for the first time that night by her father, as documented in her book, "Growing Up in Olcott Park."

"We oohed and ahed and clapped our hands. The display was spectacular," she wrote. "It was even lovelier than the annual Fourth of July fireworks. The sounds of the falling water soothed and quieted, and none of us there had ever seen anything like it. None of us would ever forget it."

Raising money

The committee began meeting in April and is partnering with the city of Virginia and the Virginia Community Foundation on the restoration project, Gilness said. The community foundation is collecting donations, and checks can be made out to the Olcott Park Restoration Fund.

The committee's goal is to raise $400,000 in private donations and to apply for grants to receive matching funds to restore the fountain to its original form with the various sprays and colors, Gilness said. The committee also hopes to continue to collect donations to maintain the fountain long-term, he said.

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Work on the fountain is expected to begin in 2017. The work is planned in two phases with the fountain being restored in the first phase, followed by the landscaping in the second phase, Gilness said.

The restoration plan calls for new landscaping that makes the fountain more visible and inviting, he said. The fountain will get a new pump system and the fountain's pool will get a new floor, while the stonework on the pool's outside will be regrouted. The retaining walls on the hillside going down into the fountain area also will be reset, he said. New sidewalks around the water with a shaded pergola at each end of the fountain are planned, he said. The area also will be made wheelchair-accessible, and new lighting and security cameras will be installed.

Committee members said they've heard back-in-the-day stories of graduation parties being held at the fountain, of people from as far away as International Falls stopping to see it and patients at the hospital across the street enjoying the fountain view - and they hope the restored fountain will once again provide that destination.

"It's good for the park. It's good for the city. It's good for the area," Gilness said.

For more information

To learn more about the Olcott Park fountain project or to donate, contact Greg Gilness at (218) 741-2951 or go to the Virginia Community Foundation website, www.virginiafoundation.com .

Related Topics: VIRGINIAIRON RANGE
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