The Genius of Water: A Monument, Gathering Point, and Drinking Fountain

August 05, 2018

Tyler Davidson Fountain

Photo: Derek Jensen

The Tyler Davidson fountain is easily recognized by Cincinnatians as the centerpiece of downtown. It’s also known to folks outside the area thanks to its inclusion in the opening credits of the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati.  

Conceived in the 1840s by German sculptor August von Kreling (1819-1876) for King Ludwig I, the project wasn’t completed until 1870. That’s because the sculptor was unable to find a patron to fund the work. So it basically sat on the old drawing board until 1866.

That’s when Cincinnati native Henry Probasco saw the drawings and decided the sculpture would be a wonderful centerpiece for his hometown, as well as a tribute to his late brother-in-law, and former boss, Tyler Davidson.

Probasco had come town around 1835 and wound up in the employ of Davidson. In 1840, he became a junior partner in Davidson’s importing and hardware business. That same year, he married his partner’s sister, Julia.

While hardly destitute, the family’s fortunes greatly improved when Probasco came up with the idea of replacing Davidson’s old building with a brand new five-story edifice on Main Street. That location today is roughly the corner of Joe Nuxhall Way and East Freedom Way, across from the entrance to the Reds Hall of Fame at Great American Ballpark.

The new store was a huge success and made Davidson and Probasco extremely wealthy; swimming pools, movie stars rich, even though they didn’t have movie stars yet. And where a huge influx of wealth sometimes has a negative impact on families, the Probasco’s and Davidson’s remained very close and quite fond of each other.

In 1866, Tyler passed, leaving a fortune to his sister and brother-in-law, allowing the couple to retire and travel. It was on a trip to Europe that they came across the renderings for the Genius of Water sculpture and fountain.

The idea for such a fountain had been envisioned by Davidson about a decade before his passing. However, for him it was less about aesthetics and more to do with public morality. At the time, the only place to get a drink of water downtown was from a bar or saloon. Folks often did that, and then followed their water with a beer chaser. Indeed, one of the things that attracted Probasco to the design was a feature that allowed the fountain to also function as a drinking fountain, which technically it still does. For years, each of the 4 spigots had an attached tin cup, until people became aware of germs. With all the boxes checked, Probasco was sold. He paid for the fountain’s construction, then had it shipped in pieces to Cincinnati.  

At Probasco’s insistence, the city created a narrow plaza down the middle of Fifth Street and placed the fountain at its center. Originally it faced east to honor the heritage of Cincinnatians who had come from Europe. In 1960, it was flipped around to face west for reasons unknown, as Fountain Square was expanded northward. In 2005, the entire fountain was moved to the center of the square where it sits today. At this time, the Genius of Water statue was reoriented to face south, towards the river, tying the importance of the river into Fountain Square and the heart of the city.

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