By Dr. Bill Barrick, Executive Director
From its earliest beginnings as a fishing camp, water was an important feature in the original design of Bellingrath Gardens. With so much natural water surrounding the site, it is interesting to see how architect George B. Rogers chose fountains and manmade water features to be integral parts of his final garden design.
Fountains have been an important element of gardens since ancient Egypt. The Persians believed their use within a garden simulated the heavens. The French perfected gigantic garden fountains at Versailles in the 17th century; by the late 19th century, Americans were producing elaborate cast iron fountains for public and private gardens.
At Belle Camp, the Bellingraths’ fishing camp, the first and most important water feature was Fountain Plaza, which solved the issue of an unstoppable artesian spring, which had washed out a hillside to the west of it. Rogers installed a bubbling pot within a large pool atop the spring and had the water carried away in a rocky runnel towards another pool. This second pool is centered with a mermaid fountain of terra cotta, which Mrs. Bellingrath purchased from a New Orleans homeowner.
Gravity feeds the overflow from this pool to the Cascade, which runs between the flagstone steps leading down to the Grotto. The water splashes down to the lowest pool before being carried out to the river via another rocky runnel.
The Bellingrath Home was completed in 1936, four years after the completion of Fountain Plaza, the Mermaid Pool and the Grotto. Rogers installed a central pool in the courtyard, which he lined with green Rookwood tiles. A matching wall fountain feeds this pool with the help of a terra cotta figure of a cherub astride a dolphin. On summer nights, the sound of splashing water could be heard from all of the rooms surrounding it.
Overflow water from this courtyard pool is carried beneath the Home to feed the pool on the East Terrace. Gravity ultimately takes the overflow from this pool and feeds it to a bubbling basin, which splashes its contents down a rocky waterfall towards the river.
When the South Terrace was created in the early 1960s, a square, brick fountain was placed in its center. The top tier bubbles and splashes water down to overflow into the lower tier.
The newest water feature to be installed at Bellingrath was the majestic, three-tiered, cast iron fountain in the center of the Rose Garden, which was put in place in July 2010.
The fountain was donated by the operations director of Bel Air Mall; it used to be in the entrance of the mall, but was taken down during an extensive renovation project. Its cast iron construction recalls the many antique pieces of ironwork throughout the Gardens, ranging from a full-size lion to decorative planters, benches and chairs.
Learn more about Bellingrath history on Wednesday, July 20, as Museum Director Tom McGehee presents “Beautiful Objects with a Colorful Past” at 10:30 AM. He will give guests a closer look at some of the treasures collected by Bessie Bellingrath and the fascinating stories behind them. Call 251.973-2217 to register.