GARDINER — A fundraising campaign is now underway to pay for reconstruction of the fountain in the Gardiner Common honoring a city native who has a legacy that reaches far beyond Maine.

At the same time, volunteers are working on upgrades to the Common as it approaches the start of its third century in 2024. Improvements include planting trees and seeking a designation as Maine’s oldest town square through a nomination by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to be included on the National Historic Register as a cultural landmark.

“It is a place that local people go,” Rusty Greenleaf, Gardiner resident, said. “But it’s amazing the people that come from away that have been there as a kid, either to visit their grandparents, or here on vacation, or whatever.

“They still stop by to the see that Common. The gazebo and the fountain are the focal points,” he added. “When we restored the gazebo, people were so happy to get that back. And we’re hearing the same thing about the fountain.”

To date, the Gardiner Rotary Club, which has taken on the fundraising project, has raised about $12,000 of the $100,000 goal and commitments for in-kind donations.

Greenleaf, who is now wrapping up his term as president of the Gardiner Rotary Club, said he hopes enough money can be raised to start work on the fountain next summer.

“Our timeline was to do the work this summer,” Greenleaf said. “But COVID got nasty last summer, and everything got put on hold. So, I think honestly, we’ll be looking to do the work next summer.”

Now in its third incarnation, the fountain sits at the north end of the Common.

The original fountain was given to the city by Susan Palmer in 1896 in memory of her husband Gideon Palmer. It was a depiction Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, with a trident in his hand that sat on a plinth bearing the details of Palmer’s life.

The fountain at the Gardiner Common on June 16 in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Palmer was a Gardiner native born in 1813 and educated at Bowdoin College. He returned to Gardiner to be the principal of the Gardiner Lyceum, and later started practicing medicine. He served on the Gardiner City Council and in the Maine State Legislature before he enlisted as a volunteer surgeon in the Army of the Potomac, on the staff of Gen. O. O. Howard — a native of Leeds — during the Civil War.

Following the war, Howard asked him to serve on the faculty of Howard University, founded shortly after the end of the Civil War, where for many years Palmer was the faculty dean. Before his death in 1891, he also was the surgeon in charge of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., which offered medical care to former enslaved people and was the teaching hospital for the Howard University Medical School.

During World War II, the Neptune statue, along with the cannons on display in the Common, were donated to the war effort. The water works remained, and the fountain was replaced by a cone of rocks erected by city workers that remained for several decades.

“The Lady with the Birds,” the fountain’s current incarnation, came to Gardiner as a part of a public art initiative tied to the U.S. bicentennial. Gardiner was one of three Maine cities to win a grant from the Maine State Commission on the Arts to contract contemporary freestanding works of art to be installed in a publicly accessible, visible site.

Gardiner’s Bicentennial Committee reviewed the work of eight sculptors before selecting a work by Norman Therrien of Boothbay Harbor.

Dorothy Washburn served as co-chairwoman of the committee and said the goal of the project was to do restoration work on the Common.

The Common hosts the city’s memorials to those killed in war, and to poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who grew up in Gardiner and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry three times. It’s also been the site of a farmers market and in 2018 hosted the Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Brunswick Square, as the Common was originally known, was given to the city of Gardiner in March 1824 by Robert Hallowell Gardiner, with the condition that residents never allow any building on it, and that it be kept as a public walk and parade ground.

Fixing the fountain will be a complicated project in some respects.

Robert Abbey at the Gardiner Common fountain June 16 in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Robert Abbey, who has served as president of the Gardiner Main Street board and has volunteered in other capacities, said the concrete that forms the bowl of the fountain will have to be removed and reinstalled in a slightly different shape. Removing the bowl will also allow an examination of what’s underneath, including the pipes that bring water to the fountain.

“Nobody’s ever been under there before now,” Abbey said.

When that area is opened, then people will have a chance to look at the piping, and fix any leaks and replace any segments that have reached the end of their useful life.

The bowl is surrounded by rim carved from Hallowell granite, and the goal is to preserve those pieces and use them again in the new fountain, Abbey said.

Washburn has also been working on securing grant funds through Project Canopy to plant trees in the Common.

“I’m prejudiced,” Washburn said. “But I think Gardiner is really a lovely little city, and we should do everything we possibly can to make improvements where we see improvements can be made.”

Initially, the trees that bordered the walkways in the Common were elm trees, but they have given way to other species after Dutch Elm disease killed off many of those trees. Washburn said the new trees are sugar maples, red maples and pink red chestnut trees.

“The project is to restore the Common to the beautiful green space it once  was,” she said. “This is actually a three-year plan. We’ll plant nine trees this year.

“Hopefully next year, we’ll apply to Project Canopy again, and we’ll be successful in getting a grant and (plant) again for a third year until we get to a point where we can replace the trees that have been removed for damage or age in the past few years,” Washburn added.

These projects represent an investment of time and money into a community asset that’s valued beyond the green space it provides for city residents and those who live in the towns around Gardiner.

“Having that much available green space so close to our downtown just adds to the community feel of Gardiner,” Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Melissa Lindley said. “It gives people a place to relax and play close to our downtown. Both the Common and the waterfront are a walkable distance from our downtown.”

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