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Ashland's famous fountain on winding road to recovery

Restoring the Lithia Fountain on the downtown plaza in Ashland has led to a continent-wide quest for materials to replace antique parts.

The lithium-laden water that once bubbled from the fountain until vandals destroyed it has high mineral content that corrodes the fountain.

The landmark was removed on July 1, 2006, after the vandalism.

Back in the early 1900s, people were convinced that mineral water was the key to health.

If nothing else, Ashland's foul-smelling spring water was the key to a healthy tourist trade.

In pursuit of tourists, Ashlanders adopted the motto, "Ashland grows when Lithia flows," said George Kramer, a historic preservation consultant hired by the city of Ashland to head the fountain restoration project.

Residents passed a bond to pipe lithia water from springs near the Ashland Municipal Airport to six locations in town. The Plaza fountain was installed in 1927 to bring water to the tourists and locals who were willing to brave its unusual taste and sulfurous odor.

"Lithia water is part of our history. Lithia water is the logic, the driver, behind Lithia Park and Ashland's effort to transform itself from a railroad town to a destination," Kramer said.

Residents removed the factories that lined Ashland Creek to make way for Lithia Park and the tourists who motored into town.

Eventually, the mineral water craze died down, but by then the foundation was in place for Ashland to draw tourists with a burgeoning attraction — the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Over time, the Lithia Fountain's basins were replaced numerous times until they no longer resembled the originals.

Replacement aluminum basins had been eaten away by the mineral water and left askew by vandals. Iron connectors rusted and expanded, cracking and staining the fountain's granite base.

In 2006, the city hired Kramer and John Galbraith of Galbraith and Associates to evaluate options for restoring the fountain. They discovered a daunting array of problems.

"I have never worked on 10 square feet that was so complicated in my career," Kramer said.

The Citizens Budget Committee and Ashland City Council authorized spending up to $35,000 to restore the fountain, and Kramer began his search for replacement parts.

Using historic photos of the original basins, he researched the factories that made fountains in the 1920s. He put out calls for help via the Internet among preservationist circles and contacted building salvage yards around the country.

Finally, Kramer found that Omega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., had an exact replica of a basin. The company sent the basin to him and he hand-delivered it to Quality Brass and Aluminum in Portland to have durable bronze copies cast from the antique.

"It's made out of porcelain and it's very fragile. We all lived in terror that it would get broken," Kramer said. "I personally took it to Portland. We weren't willing to ship it. I handed it to the guy at the foundry."

Having new basins cast from the antique basin saved the city thousands of dollars in machining costs, he said.

After they are cast, the new basins will be shipped to Murdock Fountain in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a porcelain powder coating. The firm is one of the only companies in the nation with experience in mineral water fountains, which have extra maintenance and operation issues compared to fountains that use regular water.

Murdock Fountain is also making replacement bubblers and plumbing.

Three pieces of granite from the Ashland Quarry on Highway 66 were used to make the original fountain. On private property, the quarry has not been used in 70 years, Kramer said, and replacement rock is needed. Kramer found granite from Georgia that is nearly an exact match. After the company quarries out a chunk of granite for the fountain project, it will be shipped to Oregon Granite in Medford to be made into the replacement piece and have holes drilled to accommodate the plumbing.

Meanwhile, a local graphic artist has designed a replica of a historic sign that once graced the fountain. The special enamel sign is being fabricated in Canada, Kramer said.

"I'm hopeful that all the various pieces floating around the country — in fact, around the continent — should be arriving in Ashland in January," he said.

Kramer estimated lithia water will be bubbling again from the fountain in March or April.

This time around, the city is investing in a steel armature inside the granite to hold the basins. The steel should be able to withstand a 400-pound load and help protect the fountain from vandals. The steel supports will be made on-site once the new granite arrives, according to a city staff memo to the City Council about the project.

Once the fountain is operating, it will be rinsed daily with regular water to prevent mineral build-up in the drains that damaged the basins and handles in the past. The new design and maintenance plans should reduce future maintenance expenses, Kramer said.

Vickie Aldous is a staff writer for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.