A designer jogs into the long-forgotten fountain he had been seeking for the Mon County Courthouse plaza makeover.

For Phil Cole, a recent Sunday afternoon jog came with an added benefit: He spotted a long-missing bit of county history—the drinking fountain original to the Monongalia County Courthouse square that’s at the center of the major makeover that began in May.

“We’d been banging our heads against the wall about this fountain,” says Cole, a WallacePancher Group landscape designer who’d been working for months on the courtyard design with architects from Mills Group and county leaders.

In the design for the transformed courtyard, a glass outline of the Monongahela River—illuminated by programmable light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs—is embedded in the walkway. The glass river follows the curvature of the river from its source, just outside Fairmont, represented by the fountain. It then snakes and winds its way to the end of the plaza, where the state line—and Mason-Dixon line—is represented by a series of pavers. The fountain had been in place in front of the courthouse for decades until a modernization effort in the 1960s.

However there was a hitch: No one knew what had become of the fountain, and the fear was that it had been hidden away for good, or maybe even destroyed.

Buying a modern, ready-made fountain didn’t seem like the right fit for a project that’s so focused on local history, Cole says. But with only a few poor-quality, black-and-white photos showing the fountain’s general shape and size, he’d had no luck finding a company to create a replica. And even if a firm could recreate the fountain, the work wouldn’t come cheap. Estimates were in the $50,000 range, a hefty sum for the $2 million project. “We’d have a meeting and talk about what to do and then we’d have to push it off to do more research,” Cole says. “And then, at the next meeting, we’d still be at a standstill. It was unbelievably frustrating. I’d just called a foundry in Alabama and they said, ‘With these photos, we can’t do it.’ I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

And then on a warm March weekend, Cole and his wife, Kellie Cole, a Mills Group architect, headed off for a run in Westover City Park, a place they hadn’t ever visited during their four years in West Virginia. The park was once home to the county fairgrounds and the Coles, regular running partners for more than a decade, were chatting about the interesting building remnants around them when a small, dilapidated pavilion came into view.

Kellie Cole remembers that her husband literally stopped in his tracks. “He said, ‘Kell, look!” and I said: ‘Is that what I think it is?’” Phil Cole instantly recognized the elusive courtyard fountain. “That fountain had been burned in my brain,” he says. The Monongalia County Commission coordinated with Westover to return the fountain, which designers believe can be retrofitted to make it a flowing water feature that will provide a trickling sound.

Getting to place the original fountain in the rehabbed courthouse plaza means a lot to architect Michael Mills, the founding principal of Mills Group and an expert in historic preservation. “We thought the fountain was such an important element to the entire project,” says Mills, who grew up in Bethel, Vermont, where he says he discovered an appreciation for both architecture and history. “We wanted to have the sound of water and we wanted to find ways to show how significant water has been to the county over the years. The Mon River’s been a major factor in the progress here.”

Dr. Ed Hawkins, president of the Monongalia County Commission and the Monongalia Historical Society, says he’s excited that the plaza is getting attention a half-century after its last major update. He’s also thrilled the project, due to be completed in mid-December, will make the building fully compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements via a ramp that will be integrated into the front entrance. And he’s looking forward to an end to the question he’s heard all too regularly in 40 years of working downtown. “So many people ask, ‘Where’s the courthouse?’”

When the project is finished later this year, the Romanesquestyle Monongalia County Courthouse will be difficult to miss. Starting with a county seal and flag poles creating an inviting gateway from the street, the public will be welcomed into the courthouse that dates to 1891.

Visitors to the plaza will be drawn into the story of the county, Hawkins says, which will also be told through a timeline of key dates and by relocating existing memorial plaques to be displayed at eye level. In May, the project started with the removal of blighted ash trees, which will be replaced with a combination of shade and flowering trees. “Having the fountain, the tree plantings, all the plaques and memorials at eye level and easy to read, the spectacular lighting, the timeline of key dates in the county’s history—this is going to be a place where people will want to come.”

Phil Cole envisions the finished courtyard as a true destination for local residents and out-of-town visitors alike. “It’s our goal to create a really nice space where people will get a sense of our history and our geography. I can’t wait for it to all come together.”

To see Mills Group’s virtual tour of the project (above), go to vimeo.com and search for “Monongalia County Courthouse Masterplan.”

written by Christine Snyder

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