This talk is part of the Fountain Fundamentals Conference, July 10-11, 2013, Kansas City, MO.

Restoration of Rockefeller’s Italian Fountain by Ricardo Viera and Michele Boyd

Bronx Zoo Fountain

Italian Rockefeller Fountain

Viera: So in 2005 the BCA was commissioned by the Wildlife Conservation Society to assess the conditions, prepare the documents and monitor the repairs and rehabilitation of the Italian Rockefeller Fountain. The goal of the rehabilitation was to curtail the deterioration of the fountain, replace severely eroded features, while upgrading plumbing and electrical systems to contemporary standards. Part of the funding of this rehabilitation came from a Save America’s Treasures grant. Despite the SAT grant, the funding was limited and so was the duration for the rehabilitation. Since the fountain is a work of art, as well as a city landmark, both the Design Commission of the City of New York as well as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission were involved in the rehabilitation. Under out direction, electrical, plumbing, lighting, waterproofing consultants were brought in to help with the assessment and recommendations. Besides the entities mentioned, the fountain required that the involvement of restoration contractors as we stone carvers. The Italian Fountains Rehabilitation, despite its modest size, required the collaboration of many. Michelle.

Michelle: The Bronx Zoo was founded in 1895 as New York’s zoological park and Rockefeller’s Italian Fountain has always been part of the zoo’s historic core. This 1986 aerial view depicts the fountain in its current location in a circular plaza north of the historic Bear Court. Bear Court is now known as Astor Court for anyone familiar with the Bronx Zoo. Bear Court was designed by New York architects Heinz and LaFarge as the centerpiece of the new zoological park. The court originally consisted of five detached brick and limestone neoclassical animal houses and a central sea lion pool on a raised and landscaped terrace which you can see here.

This image from about 1880 shows the fountain in its original location by Lake Como in northern Italy on the Piazza Cavour. The Piazza Cavour was created in 1860 from landfill as a gathering spot for tourists and local residents. In 1872, a wealthy Como businessman, Sebastiano Mondolfo commissioned local sculptor Biaggio Catella to create the fountain for the piazza.

From the beginning the design had its critics. Some objected to the use of sea creatures and sacrificed water animals that would have been found in the lake. Some felt that the swan at the top of the fountain looked rather like a goose, an observation that turned out to be prophetic. In addition, the fountain was not designed to recycle water. Instead it served as a source of fresh drinking water by drawing from a local aqueduct thus causing hardship for other small local fountains using the same source. After less than twenty years on the piazza, the fountain started to lean. The city deemed the repair too expensive and placed the fountain in storage where it remained for ten years, that’s the city of Como by the way.

In 1901, after a devastating fire and fiscal mismanagement, the cash strapped Como sold the fountain to a local resident who in turn sold it one year later to an agent for William Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil and multi-philanthropist and Rockefeller was doing the same thing that was happening at the Vizcaya where he was collecting treasures from Europe and reusing them here. Rockefeller purchased the fountain as a gift for the new zoological park. Rockefeller’s fountain was originally placed in Bear Court, opposite the sea lion pool and when the fountain was erected on Bear Court, the large concrete basin was added beneath the fountain. This image from 1907 depicts the fountain in its first location at the zoo with the sea lion pool just visible at the right.

In 1910, the fountain was moved to its present location, the circular plaza that we showed you in the first slide, at the north of the court, which opened up space on the court for the construction of the new animal house. In its location on the plaza, the fountain is a prominent focal point in transition from the zoo’s entrance to Astor Court. This view form about 1912 shows the fountain shortly after its relocation to the circular plaza. In 1968, the Italian fountain was designated one of New York City’s first individual landmarks.Como has attempted to repatriate the fountain twice in 1968 and in 1993. The city of New York turned down both requests on the grounds that the fountain was purchased legally and is a New York City landmark.

Viera: The fountain is composed of three limestone and granite tiers rising above a large circular concrete base with low granite

This detail of a merman exemplifies vein erosion of the limestone throughout the fountain.

This detail of a merman exemplifies vein erosion of the limestone throughout the fountain.

curb. The top tier is composed of a circular platform topped by the figure of a swan with its long neck stretched upwards. The rim of the middle basin is ornamented with, and I hope you’re happy to hear this Carole, four grotesque caste iron masks, each centered between the scalloped shell groups. The middle basin is half the diameter of the lower basin and is wrapped around with a scalloped ring. The upper basin contains twenty low relief grotesque masks which are carved between each scallop on the ring. Four naiads or merpeople are mounted on rusticated stone piers in the concrete basin. Each naiad supports a large scallop shell overhead and putee ride a mystical sea horses. Archival sources identify the stone used for the fountain to be either an Istrian marble or bianco p marble. The granite is not specifically named. Our analysis of the stone indicated that the fountain was carved from limestone and not marble. A thin section of the stone was prepared and examined under polarized light microscopy. A seam in the top figure shows abundant fossils in various forms that are cemented primarily with calcite spar, typical of limestone.

In contrast the bottom image shows marble at the same magnification and shows a texture very different from the sample from the Italian fountain, particularly the larger grains and intimate grain contract that are typical of marbles. The limestone had eroded at the neck and the bill of the swan, probably exacerbated by freezing water coming out of the mouth. The copper water supply tube in the swan’s neck can be seen through the eroded hole. Staining, erosion and bio-growth were found throughout the fountain.

Large cracks were visible on the mushroom shaped pedestal on the left slide. On the right, the underside of the mushroom pedestal was extensively eroded. These images show the deterioration of the underside of the top basin. Sculptural elements were falling off and details of the twenty masques were eroding, friable and many contained cracks likely caused by the freezing water around the funnels going through the masques. This is a detail of dolphins showing a network of cracks up the snout and previous repair that had failed as evidenced by the metal pins that were corroding. Note the cracks radiating from the pins. The bottom jaw of the dolphins has fallen off and water supply copper tubing was exposed.

Erosion bio-growth was found on the limestone. Extensive cracks such as the one at the center of the shell would have progressively worsened if left untreated. The seahorse was missing its lower jaw. The detail of the merman exemplified vein erosion of the limestone throughout the fountain. This is a view of the mermaid with similar erosion and biological growth. The mermaid was missing some fingers on her right hand and the left hand was either a reattachment or a Dutchman replacement. The detail of erosion at the nose and lips, staining and carbonite soiling under the scalloped shell can be seen. The image of the sculptural figures in the low and middle basin show that the mermaid, merman were missing a section of its tail.

Detail of one of four cast iron masks on the middle basin.

Detail of one of four cast iron masks on the middle basin.

Previous repairs included a staple pin as you can see on the right slide right here, repair of the seahorse’s tail, and there were spalls to the tips of the scalloped shells. This Puto and seahorse were heavily soiled and covered in biological growth. The bottom jaw of the seahorse had spalled and needed to be repaired using a new stone Dutchman. Cracks had developed into the incipient spalls as seen on the right side of the Pluto’s face and shows that sedimentary stone deteriorates by exfoliation.

This is a view of the top basin and shows that the concave funnel drains had failed waterproofing campaigns. A copper alloy staple pin is visible on the cementitious basin liner; the face of the masques at the bottom of the screen had fallen off despite the previous repair attempts. Detail of one of four cast iron masques on the middle basin show extensive green stains exist from the biological growth, the corroding metal is staining the granite, and a tube in the mouth of the masque allowed water to drain from the middle basin. The side profile of the masque revealed gaps between the masques and granite allowing bird nests and water to sit. The removal of the cast iron masque revealed the various episodes of anchors which were still extent. You can also see the open and very wide mortar joints throughout. The cementitious poring of the middle basin had extensive cracks as mentioned, in particular at the cast iron mask locations. We can see plant growth in some joints and cracks. The detail of the drain showed an ineffective makeshift corroding screen sieve. The open joints and ineffective basin liners allowed water to flow out of the basin and into the underside of the fountain. Underneath the fountain is a valve pit room, where most of the plumbing lines were. Due to all the cracks in the basins and plumbing lines, the valve pit room was under several feet of water. As you can see the walls were lined with lime deposits from the mortar joints that had been deteriorating for many years.

We performed a testing program to see the most effective, least harmful method of cleaning the fountain. Water misting was found to remove the bio-growth and general soling from the limestone surfaces. Areas containing heavy soiling were cleaned using a two part chemical cleaning system. Granite surfaces were cleaned with a chemical cleaner and areas that contained heavy lime deposits and staining were cleaned using a microabrasive cleaning system using a vortex type nozzle. The media was crushed glass. Deeply embedded ferrous stains were removed using chemical cleaner and poultices. All the mortar joints were repointed. Due to the friable condition of some of the limestone features, all limestone surfaces were consolidated after they were cleaned. The areas of limestone that were consolidated were covered to prevent them from getting dirty and oversprayed when other areas were being consolidated. Also many of the repairs had to cease during the winter months. You can see the snow on the ground. The manhole entrance to the valve pit room is visible on the bottom of the slide.

A limestone supply from Indiana was found to be a good match to the existing limestone. This stone was used for most unique, non-repetitive, severely eroded sections or stone features. A custom color cementitious patch was developed to repair minor holes and cracks and as we can see from the slide below, different patching colors. Due to the limited budget and time constraints, we opted to use cast stone instead of carved stone to replace severely eroded sections that were repetitive. These dental like wedge sections were replaced with cast stone. Cracks were not systemic and were repaired to prevent further deterioration, expansion and water infiltration. New and previous surface cracks were repaired by injecting an epoxy resin and filling surfaces of cracks with composite patching material. Open veins were grouted as mentioned in the previous lecture with dispersed hydraulic limes.

The black and white view on the top right is an early photo of the twenty masques. The level of weathering amongst the faces was mostly uniform with the exception of a few faces that had cracked or in one case had been lost completely. Our approach was to replace the face that was completely missing and conserve the rest. Conservation entailed re-sculpting of minor features that were completely missing using composite patching materials, patching cracks, reattaching loose sections using epoxy, removal of inappropriate repairs and stone consolidation. The intention of the restoration work was to maintain and conserve the existing weathered but even appearance of the faces. A few stone units were carved out to match the limestone to replace a missing face. The replacement unit was carved to match an existing unit whose profile was the most articulated but also maintained a weathered appearance of the ensemble of twenty faces and did not strive to achieve an as new condition. All new lead funnels and internal pipes were fabricated and installed.

The eroded swan’s neck and head were replaced with new carved limestone. We removed paint samples from two cast iron masques and brought them to our laboratory for analysis. The goal was to determine, if possible, the original finish of the masques as determined through analysis of paint chronologies. The paint analysis revealed that there were eleven layers of paint on the cast iron masques. The original finish was found to be a metallic bronze-colored paint.

After the removal of all corrosion, scaling down to bare metal, the masques were painted on both sides with a rust inhibitive coating primer followed by a base coat and a final coat to match the original finish. Masques were reinstalled with new stainless steel anchors and sealant was installed between the restored cast iron masques and granite surfaces. Here’s a view of the finished masque.

View of the upper basin shows that the continuous decementitious liner was replaced with a new reinforced polyester water proofing membrane. The funnels going through the twenty masques were also flashed with a membrane to create a seamless liner. The color of the membrane was selected to match the stone color as closely as possible.


Carved from light-colored limestone and granite to the designs of sculptor Biagio Catella for the northern Italian city of Como in 1872, the Rockefeller Fountain is so named because William Rockefeller (1841–1922) gave it to the City of New York in 1903. In 1968, just three years after the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed to protect the City’s architectural and aesthetic heritage, the fountain was designated an individual landmark, subjecting it to the protections and regulations afforded to locally designated properties.

The fountain now stands at a main entrance to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), stewards of the Bronx Zoo, commissioned BCA to perform a comprehensive conditions assessment and prepare restoration documents. The fountain was fully restored in 2007–8.

The Rockefeller Fountain presented a conservation challenge in its range of materials—limestone, granite, fieldstone, cementitious basin, cast iron, and brick—and in its degree of deterioration. Our presentation will present a history and description of the fountain and its significance and focus on the investigative methods, particularly laboratory analysis and field tests, used to determine conditions, as well as the masonry treatments used for loss of detail, delamination, crack repair, spalled and cracked stone, mortar loss, deteriorated parging, biogrowth, soiling, and metal corrosion. In addition, we will describe repairs and upgrades to the plumbing, drainage, and lighting systems.

Speakers Bio

Ricardo Viera, Associate Director, has been with BCA since 1990 and has performed and overseen numerous conservation and historic preservation consulting projects. He specializes in the restoration of building materials, with particular expertise in terra cotta restoration. Mr. Viera holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Historic Preservation and a master’s of Architecture from the University of Florida.

Michele Boyd, Associate, joined BCA’s preservation department in 2002. Michele is an architectural historian and preservationist. She completed her M.S. in historic preservation at Columbia University. Her recent experience includes development of comprehensive preservation plans and historic structure reports for the 19th and early 20th century buildings on the campus of the Newark Museum. Her work at BCA is centered on conducting archival research and developing architectural histories and significance studies, documenting existing conditions, and conducting restoration design review for compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

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