As the dust settled and dump trucks hauled the final loads of dirt and debris Thursday, Aug. 30 out of Luke Wood Park, construction workers and volunteers found themselves face-to-face with a piece of Sarasota history that hadn’t seen the light of day in more than 60 years.
After four hours of excavation and cleanup, the Mable Ringling Memorial Fountain once again stood uncovered. Built in 1936, in honor of the late Mable Ringling, the fountain lost maintenance funding during World War II and fell into disrepair. The memorial was then abandoned and filled in with dirt in the early 1950s, presumably for safety reasons, and remained buried for six decades.
Thanks to efforts by the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation, the fountain could be renovated and running again within a year. The recent excavation was part of an exploratory dig, which is the first step by the Alliance in its project aimed at renovating the historic fountain.
The push for the renovation came about in 2011, when Sarasota Alliance for Historical Preservation board member Larry Kelleher proposed the idea to the rest of the board.
Having grown up in Sarasota in the 1950s, Kelleher said that, for him, the project holds special significance.
“I remember going to Luke Wood Park as a child,” said Kelleher. “The older kids would park their cars and play their radios, and we would play king of the hill on the pile of dirt. Later, when I would drive by the park, I would remember going there as a child, and I always wanted to know what it was.”
After learning the historical significance of the fountain buried beneath the mound of dirt, Kelleher brought the idea to the Alliance, which then formed a committee to spearhead the project.
“There was a little bit of skepticism at first,” said Kelleher. “We’d never done anything like this before, so it was all new to us, but we’re about preserving history.”
The committee, which consisted of Kelleher, Dorothea Calvert, Ron McCarty, Nancy Morgan, Joyce Waterbury and the late Don Smalley, brought the idea before the City Commission last year to obtain permission to undertake the task.
The project will be funded by donations and grants, and the committee is careful in clarifying that the project is a renovation, as opposed to a restoration, which would be much more costly and require strict adherence to historical accuracies.
The fountain was originally funded by community contributions from families and organizations such as the Sarasota Kiwanis Club, the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, and Kelleher said that the Alliance hopes to recreate the same sense of community involvement with the renovation.
Kelleher expects the total cost of the renovation to be $112,000, and the Alliance is encouraging the community to get involved by donating to its online fundraising website, historicsarasota.org. The project has currently raised more than $23,000 and needs at least $60,000 in a perpetual maintenance fund to ensure that it doesn’t suffer the same fate it did in the 1950s.
When digging began, Kelleher and the rest of the team didn’t know what to expect.
“The exploratory dig was just the first step to make sure that the original (repair) estimates were accurate and to determine the condition of the fountain,” said Kelleher. “It’s actually in remarkably good condition; there are a few surface cracks on the interior, but it’s nothing that can’t be repaired.”
In addition to raising funds, the Alliance must now present its findings to the City Commission and have plans approved before work can continue. Despite the long road ahead for the project, Kelleher said he’s excited for the outcome.
“It’s part of our history,” he said. “We need to get it back out there and enjoy it. It’s going to be a really nice gateway to the historical district.”
• The fountain’s original statue now sits on St. Armands Circle and is owned by the Ringling Museum, which is allowing the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation to have a mold cast for the restoration. The original bowl has been lost, and one will be recreated from photographs.
• The two lions, donated by John Ringling, that originally accompanied the fountain, now sit in J.D. Hamel Park and will be returned to the fountain after its restoration.
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