The Ridges fountain

The fountain at the Athens State Hospital. Photo courtesy of Southeast Ohio History Center.

The recent announcement by Ohio University that it is conducting a site development feasibility study of certain Ridges’s property brought to mind wonderful memories of my youth, which took place near the centerpiece of what was known from 1894 to 1968 as the Athens State Hospital, now The Ridges. The acres of botanical gardens, woodlands, green spaces and ponds supporting abundant wildlife were designed by landscape artist, Herman Haerlin. The grounds in maturity were as intensely beautiful as French artist Claude Monet’s The Truth Of Nature. And set high above this expanse of color and beauty stood a building that today still stands as a monument to the architectural genius of Thomas Kirkbride. Facing the building was the centerpiece of this resplendent corner of Athens, a water fountain, which after a winter’s snowfall the youth of the 1960’s congregated and during the summer attracted local families.

A sculptured female figure in a flowing gown stood atop the fountain appearing to be holding a vessel over her head towards the heavens. Water spilled downward from the top to lower tier into a shallow moat in the center of which stood the fountain. Conjecture has it that the female figure was Hebe, the cupbearer for the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus, serving them nectar and ambrosia. The figure faced what was at the time the hospital’s administrative building, which now houses the Kennedy Museum Of Art. The fountain was dismantled in the early 1980’s and it is believed the sculptured figure was taken to a foundry for restoration. It has not been reunited with the fountain which stands, a shell of its original splendor, on The Ridges’ grounds near the Ohio University Child Development Center.

A short distance from the back of the fountain, the ground dropped off in a steep incline down to the ponds and a boat house shaded by towering trees, shrubs and benches. In the winter, the grounds were frequently tucked under a blanket of snow that when deep enough, which in those days was often, provided a venue over which two runner American and Flexible Flyer sleds with young riders took off down the hill from the fountain.

It was not a ride for the meek or faint of heart. When your turn came, you were expected without hesitation to take hold of your sled, sprint towards the crest of the hill and with perfect timing, drop to the ground and, in the preferred prone position, begin the downhill descent. As the day wore on, the friction from the sled runners melted the snow, creating a sheet of ice. Proportional to the hardness of the freeze, the rides became more and more precarious. But the frozen line of descent was not the only element of risk. Taking off with a run provided immediate acceleration over the carpet of ice. About a third of the way down the slope, a sidewalk wrapped itself around the hill. When crossed, the sled was projected upward in a trajectory and at a speed similar to an airplane’s take off, propelling the sled over the still descending ground. The rider held onto the sled’s wooden steering handle in a death grip with legs, separated from the sled by its downward motion, flailing in the air. On occasion, making the descent all the more perilous, a second rider would join, lying on top of the underlying rider. This joiner increased the ever present risk of destroying a sled upon landing, impact often splintering the sled, propelling the rider or riders down the remainder of the hill, plowing through the snow face first on their stomach. Risk and consequence analysis were never sled pre-launch considerations.

Surviving the landing with sled and body intact did not insure a successful ride. Trees dotting the landscape had to be navigated to avoid an abrupt end to a ride. On more than one occasion, a ride was brought to an an immediate conclusion by the lower girth of a large maple or oak tree But, if one was successful, the final leg of the exhilarating ride was a shot onto and across one of the frozen ponds after which, time and time again, the rider would pick up the sled, climb up the incline to the fountain, and repeat the downhill plummet.

Warm weather, of course, dissipated the ice and snow, ending the congregation of sledders at the fountain’s base. But the arrival of the blue skies and warm weather brought another reason to visit the fountain with family and friends. It was the summer residence of an alligator, which drew visitors from all over the surrounding area. According to Katherine Ziff in her definitive history of the hospital, Asylum On The Hill, (Athens, Oh: Ohio University Press, 2012, 192), the alligator was brought to the hospital by an employee after a trip to Florida. From fall to the following spring, the alligator was cared for in the hospital’s basement only to reemerge the next summer in the fountain. This led to a stream of family pilgrimages to the fountain. After a number of years of viewing, the growth of the alligator necessitated relocation, reportedly, to the Columbus Zoo.

The decade of the 1960’s, and the years on either side, were different from today. It was a time when winter snows were an irresistible invitation to venture outside for a day of sledding and meeting friends at the base of the water fountain; of countless rides down the hill with the grounds reverberating with the laughter, shouts and screams from each downward descent; of countless snow balls made and thrown; of shared sled rides; of bragging rights about the fastest ride; of terrifying moments and of near misses with a tree or another sled. And if the gods nourished by Hebe were smiling over you maybe, just maybe, you had a successful ride. Then, after the long day, tired but still not feeling the cold and dampness of the day, you walked home trailing your sled, each kid one by one peeling off into their homes until it was just you, alone, with your memories of the glorious day of freedom and fellowship. In the final rays of a setting winter sun, you entered your home and its warmth. Sitting down to a family dinner you related the day’s exploits to your parents. And then, with winter melted away and summer’s arrival, the fountain, radiating rejuvenated beauty accentuated by blooming flowers, trees and shrubbery, again enticed you and a stream of visitors for a few moments gaze at an alligator whose summer home was the circling fountain water.

This water fountain drew the community, its residents and those of the hospital together. It facilitated a period of personal enrichment in the lives of the Athens and hospital communities. Haerlin and Kirkbride knew, beyond simply aesthetics, that a water fountain possessed a power of attraction. They knew a fountain as a place people would come to watch falling water pierce its reflective surface, sending outward concentric ripples; they knew a fountain as a place kids wound come together to spent a day of participation; they knew a fountain as a place where families would meet and spread out a picnic lunch or evening dinner; they knew a fountain as a place where people would come to sit quietly and meditate in the warming rays of the sun or talk and interact with friends and strangers who would become, if not friends, acquaintances. And, they knew this fountain as a place where the community and hospital residents would come together to mingle, interact and share the common bond of humanity. This, and more, occurred at the water fountain once situated on the grounds of the Athens State Hospital.

William Walker


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