When walking around Paris, with the top of Eiffel Tower peeking over the dove-grey roofs and sights like Notre-Dame Cathedral around every corner, it is easy to overlook the more than 100 bottle-green fountains dotted unobtrusively around the streets.
However, these fountains – known as the Wallace Fountains – are reminders of a critical moment in Paris’ history.
Barbara Lambesis, an American retiree who spends a few months in Paris each year, founded the Wallace Fountains Society in 2018 to promote the fountains and the heritage they represent. She is currently working with the Ville de Paris and other partners to plan a number of events this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first installation on July 30, 1872.
To mark the occasion, one of the fountains will be moved this spring from Denfert-Rochereau to the Musée Carnavalet gardens to be preserved for posterity. A copy is to be placed in the original location.
Between September 24 and October 4, there will also be an exhibition exploring their history and a “weekend of festivities”.
Wallace made huge donations from inheritance
The Wallace Fountains are the invention of art collector and philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace, widely thought to be the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, from whom he inherited a fortune.
Wallace was living in Paris at the time of the 1870-71 siege of the Franco-Prussian War, and donated as much as 2.5million francs in supplies to the city’s struggling population.
He saw a desperate need for clean water
Artillery shelling during the Siege of Paris destroyed several aqueducts, and clean water became an expensive commodity. It was often safer and cheaper for poorer Parisians to drink beer or wine, making alcoholism a serious problem.
“A journalist at the time noted it was not unusual to see little ones, between two and three years of age, being fed bread soaked in wine, and suffering from various ailments in consequence,” Ms Lambesis told The Connexion.
Wallace believed it his moral duty to rectify the problem of Paris’s scant water supply and worked with the city authorities to provide the population with drinking fountains.
“Richard Wallace stands as a shining example of philanthropy at its best: he came into sudden wealth and used much of it for the common good,” Ms Lambesis said. “He was a humble man and did not demand the fountains be named for him: it was the people who dubbed them ‘Les Wallaces’.”
Read more: Benefactor who saved thousands honoured
Fountains are works of art
Although they were addressing a basic human need, Wallace wanted the fountains to be works of art.
“He wanted them to inspire people to become better human beings by adopting simple virtues.”
In the final design by Wallace’s friend, Charles-Auguste Lebourg, the fountains were shaped to include four caryatids – sculpted female figures serving as architectural support – representing kindness, generosity, simplicity and sobriety.
“He accomplished his goal because they are still here after 150 years. Wallace Fountains beautify the city in a typical Parisian way – with style, artistry, a nod to the past and a sense of monumentality,” Ms Lambesis said.
“Richard Wallace’s fountains became a symbol of universal, equal access to clean drinking water. From the very beginning, they were used by rich and poor alike.”
Today they help stop single-use plastic
Although we might no longer need them to guarantee a safe water supply, as the world grows more environmentally conscious, many people who shun single-use plastic are turning to them once again to fill up their water bottles.
Some 16 original fountains remain in situ (the others are copies or installed later), although Ms Lambesis said: “Over the years, awareness of their symbolism and the story has been lost. “There is so much more to them than just street fixtures dispensing water.”
Ms Lambesis said that discovering the Wallace Fountains opened up “the real Paris – interesting neighbourhoods, quaint parks and gardens, wonderful small shops and cafes, and fascinating architecture.
Self-guided walks to find fountains are fun
“I had so much fun, I thought others might want to do the same thing. So I have organised short self-guided walks in the hope others also learn about the fountains’ historical, artistic and cultural significance and acquire a greater appreciation for them.”
You can find the walks on the society’s website: wallacefountains.org.
During September’s celebrations, the Wallace Fountains Society will present a new Wallace Fountain Award.
This will become an annual prize, given to a modern-day philanthropist who uses personal wealth and resources in partnership with public or non-profit organisations to benefit the common good.
Where to see them
Today, there are 104 ‘grand model Wallace fountains’ in Paris, all of which dispense safe drinking water. In addition, one original wall model and two colonnade model fountains are still in existence.
Most are placed in squares or at the intersections of two roads to make them easily accessible to Parisians. They work from mid-March to mid-November, but are turned off over winter to prevent damage from freezing.
A fountain can also be seen outside The Wallace Collection in Marylebone, central London.