Michael Melloy, a Delaware garden and history enthusiast, has written extensively about Josephine Gardens and Fountain and other Wilmington landmarks. Melloy kindly contributed to this story about the majestic fountain in Brandywine Park, ‘one of the most beautiful in the state.’
After an extensive five-year restoration, the majestic Josephine Fountain has reopened, standing tall beneath a canopy of Japanese cherry trees now reaching full bloom in Brandywine Park.
Nestled between the Brandywine Zoo and the northern bank of the Brandywine River, Josephine Fountain now sends its waters cascading from the crowning figure’s feet into the fountain’s base — a pool of bright blue water for all to see and admire.
Originally constructed in 1933 under the direction of General J. Ernest Smith, for decades Josephine Fountain remained one of the most popular sections of Brandywine Park, especially at this time of year, as people strolled beneath two beautiful rows of soft pink cherry trees.
Made of soft marble and materials that compromised its integrity as water flowed through the statue, Josephine Fountain ultimately began a slow process of deterioration. Decades of weather and vandalism also contributed to its decline, leading to its first renovation in 1993.
By 2015, when architects examined the fountain for another renovation, they realized it was in danger of collapse. Extensive repairs were needed, and most of the work had to occur in warm months.
Five years and $250,000 later, with funds supplied by the city and the state, visitors can finally admire the fountain in all its glory and its rich Delaware history.
In 1929 Josephine Tatnall Smith and her husband General Joshua Ernest Smith, who lived near Brandywine Park, donated a plantation of cherry trees to the park – 114 trees were planted along the river’s edge.
Upon Josephine’s death in 1931, her husband General Smith commissioned a fountain and sculpture in her memory modeled after the work of a leading Italian Renaissance sculptor at the time.
The Fountain took nearly two years to design and build and was installed on ancestral Tatnall land dating back to the 1740s. (The land had been part of Edward Tatnall’s Wawaset Nursery and was later called Tatnall Woods.)
In an act of stewardship consistent with this provenance, Smith also established and donated a sizable trust fund for the maintenance of the fountain.
General Smith also put together a time capsule and had it planted beneath the fountain. The copper container held pictures of him and his wife, as well as a typed document from Smith detailing the collaborative design of the fountain by Wilmington architect Edward Canby May (1888 – 1956) and Philadelphia sculptor John Brockhouse (1874 – 1942).
On Thursday, April 20, 1933, a distinguished crowd gathered between two rows of Japanese cherry trees in Brandywine Park to dedicate the Mrs. Josephine Tatnall Memorial Fountain on the northern bank.
Dedication ceremony attendees included the former Connecticut Chief Justice John K. Beach, a cousin of Josephine, Wilmington Mayor Frank C. Sparks, Col. Edgar L. Haynes, President of the Board of Park Commissioners, and Delaware Chief Justice James Pennewill. Representatives of the Colonial Dames, the Delaware Archives Commission and the Wilmington New Century Club were also present. (Source: Evening Journal, April 20, 1933, p. 1).
The statue is modeled after a fountain from a villa just outside of Florence, Italy. The original fountain’s statue of a nude maiden at the top represented Florence. In the original statue, the woman is squeezing her long hair, with water flowing from the ends of her long locks. This was a bit risqué for Wilmington in the 1930s. So architect Edward Canby May worked with John Brookhouse, the sculptor, to carve a statue of a woman wearing a short gown and clutching a cornucopia like a baby.
Just as the young maiden in the Florence fountain represented the city of Florence, the young woman in the new statue represented the City of Wilmington.
There are five vertical sections in the center, with the statue of a woman on the top. On the octagonal base of the fountain was a carved inscription of the final lines of an 1892 poem
by American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier: “Art builds on sand; the works of human passion change and fail; but that which shares the life of God with Him surviveth all.”
The Josephine Gardens and Fountain are not just a beautiful attraction, or a romantic memorial by a husband to honor his late wife. They link us to our history as a young City, with citizens who embraced commerce, gardening, art and music.