Sir Richard Wallace and his Paris fountains
By Jerry Marterer
The Franco-Prussian War was a disaster for 19th century France. The French Emperor Napoleon III was goaded by Germany into declaring war on the German Confederation in July 1870. The superior German forces captured the French Emperor that year and besieged Paris until it fell in January, ending the war. France was required to pay indemnity to Germany and to give up their two provinces on the Rhine, Alsace and Lorraine.
The French National Guard seized control of Paris in March of 1871 and rained terror on the city, executing army generals and the archbishop of Paris. Many aqueducts in the city were destroyed, making fresh water scarce.
A wealthy British Francophile, Sir Richard Wallace, remained in his Paris residence during the Commune. He built a hospital to treat the casualties and provided funds for the poor to buy food. But as the water supply was restored, the wealthy neighborhoods had it connected to their homes. The rest of the population had to rely on contaminated water from the Seine.
Wallace saw the need to bring fresh water to the neighborhoods via public fountains. He a turned to a well-known sculptor from the city of Nantes, Charles-August Lebourg, who conceived the idea of making the fountains works of art. He chose the Renaissance-style and incorporated four goddesses as caryatids (columns) holding up a dome. Each figure is unique. Water trickled from the center of the dome to a drain. The nine-foot, 1300-pound statues were made of cast iron by a foundry in the Marne valley. They were painted in a shade of green compatible with the gardens and trees of the city, although today a few are painted in bright colors. Tin cups were originally attached to the fountain by chains. The cups were removed by the city in the 1950s as unhygienic. Other fountain designs were smaller, more like hydrants that could be placed near parks, public gardens, and hospitals.
The first Wallace fountain was installed in 1872. Today there 100 of them scattered across the city.
I remember first seeing a Wallace fountain in the former village of Batignoles, in its town square, the Place Baret. As I began exploring the old villages of Paris, Wallace fountains appeared in all of them. The 16 former villages that became part of Paris hold 58 of them.
The fountains operate between March 15 and November 16 to avoid damage caused by freezing. They are still a source of clean drinking water and part of the Parisian life and streetscape. The positive impact on the quality of life in Paris became known in France and other cities installed them. Today Wallace fountains may be found in most European countries as well as in South America, the Middle East and Asia. In North America, there are three in French Canada and one each in New Orleans and Los Angeles.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.