The Lanning Fountain has taken on a new beauty and elegance.
By John Sippel
The surface of the newly restored Lanning Fountain shows quite a change from its appearance a year ago. The fountain commemorates the life of Nebraska native Mary Lanning '12.

Botanic Garden

New Look for--and at--a Campus Icon

Thanks to a recent restoration, the Lanning Fountain, which has graced the Smith campus for 88 years, is looking better than it has in decades.

The fountain commemorates the life of Mary Tomlinson Lanning. A member of the Smith class of 1912, she went home to Hastings, Nebraska, for her sophomore-year Christmas break, took ill on New Year's Day in 1910 and died 15 days later of complications from typhoid fever.

When it was dedicated, in 1911, the fountain commanded a broad, unbroken view of Paradise Pond and the botanic garden and faced a long expanse that ended at the Students' Building, the campus social center then standing on the current site of McConnell Hall. For many years thereafter the only nearby building was Burton Hall, built in 1914.

The fountain quickly became a popular meeting spot and just as quickly began falling prey to time and nature, losing its original patina and becoming discolored by corrosion. By the mid-1960s it had also become hemmed in by Wright and Sabin-Reed halls, and surrounding trees kept the site dark much of the time and blocked the view of the botanic garden and the pond.

Things took a turn for the better in the early 1990s, when the college commissioned a landscape master plan for the campus. One of the plan's primary goals is to preserve the campus's "sacred spaces," two of which--the botanic garden's special collections and Burton lawn--the fountain links. This suits it for another of the plan's key objectives: to restore something of the open, bucolic, irregular, artfully modulated vision of the campus landscape drawn up in 1893 by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted.

The master plan proposed reestablishing the fountain as a connection between Burton lawn and the botanic garden, opening the views to the pond and rerouting paths to make the fountain a more central nexus. This work was chosen as "a demonstration project for the whole plan, showing its underlying principles and goals," according to Shavaun Towers '71, a partner in Rolland/Towers, the site-planning and landscape-architecture firm that joined with landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander '44 in creating the plan.

Landscaping and masonry work began in the fall of 1997 under the direction of Charles Conant, project manager at Physical Plant. The fountain was removed while a new basin was set off-center in encircling bands of pavement. (They introduced materials to be used throughout the campus--including, in homage to Olmsted, the very type of paving stones he selected for New York's Central Park.) New paths were laid. Five storm-damaged trees were replaced by four seedling European beeches which, according to Kim Tripp, director of the botanic garden, will eventually form a canopy that will still permit pond and garden views.

Meanwhile, David Dempsey, building project manager at the Museum of Art, joined with the museum's acting preparator, Adam Jenkins, in restoring the surface of the fountain itself. Finding that full-fledged repatination was necessary, they did research that revealed, among other things, that the original patina had been reddish-brown. They then set to work, washing the fountain with anionic detergent, removing surface corrosion by peening it with microscopic glass beads under low pressure, and repatinating the surface by heating it with a torch and blotting the hot metal with a solution of ferric nitrate and sodium thiosulfate. After four more anionic detergent cleanings, they sealed the surface with bowling-alley wax. Having finally achieved a patina much like the original, Dempsey and Jenkins are determined to see it preserved through regular maintenance.

Recent research has also done much to restore the Smith community's sense of who Mary Lanning was. She was born September 18, 1888, the only child of William Lanning and Alice Tomlinson Lanning. Though she grew up in a Nebraska scarcely beyond its frontier days, her father was a prosperous mortgage banker and she was able to travel with her parents to Alaska in 1905 and Europe in 1907 and 1909. After public schooling in Hastings she spent two years at Brownell Hall, an Omaha girls' school, preparing for college.

"Though Mary enjoyed all the delightful trips, the advantages of an education and all the merrymaking that came her way, she had no intention of leading a life of pleasure or idleness," Margaret Koehler, Lanning's good friend from Hastings, later recalled. "Even when she was in high school, she planned to make her life one of service to others less fortunate than herself."

Lanning and Koehler both entered Smith in the fall of 1908 and lived at Baldwin House, where Mary was well liked and active in dramatics. In her first year on campus she forged a bond among the house freshmen (as they were then called) by organizing the better students among them, of whom she was one, to cajole the others into preparing for examinations. She "took her pleasures with much eagerness and enthusiasm and was always ready for a lark," Koehler said.

"Never a startlingly brilliant girl," the Northampton Gazette reported after Lanning's death, "she kept up a steady grade of good, intelligent work, which caused a member of the faculty to say, when questioned about her: 'Miss Lanning was indeed a charming girl and a most satisfactory pupil.'"

Beyond bringing such biographical gleanings to light, the restoration research showed the fountain to have been the object of confusion almost from the start. For one thing, it was wrongly tied to the events of an awful day in Smith history-April 29, 1909, when senior Helen Ayer Marden was fatally shot outside the Students' Building by a rejected suitor who then killed himself. Mary Lanning, completing her first year at Smith, was presumably at chapel the next morning to hear Helen Marden eulogized.

In 1922 William Francis Ganong, professor of botany and director of the botanic garden, appalled to find how universally Mary Lanning was thought to be the victim of this murder, wrote to the Smith College Weekly to set the record straight. "If a myth of this kind can grow up within ten years, in a community devoted to the cultivation of reason," he asked, "how much trust can be placed in reported events of old times, handed down through generations of unlettered people before being recorded in writing?" Not much, apparently, for the myth has never quite subsided.

Another persistent error has it that the fountain is based on one in the Palazzo Pitti e Giardino di Boboli in Florence. It is in fact a full-sized copy by Chicago sculptor Nellie Verne Walker of a smaller piece that stood in the front hallway of the Lanning home: Marguerite, by the French sculptor Jean Gautherin. Work by Gautherin is known to have been exhibited in the Musee du Petit Palais in Paris--hence the Pitti Palace confusion.

The inscriptions on the fountain's base make no mention of Gautherin or of Marguerite. They say only "In memory of a beautiful life" and list Mary Lanning's name, birth and death dates, and school and class affiliations-making it easy to misassume, as many have over the years, that she is portrayed in the sculpture. (She is, however, the subject of a marble bust done by Nellie Walker using a death mask as a reference. It now stands in the lobby of Mr. and Mrs. Lanning's most ambitious memorial to their daughter, the Mary Lanning Memorial Hospital in Hastings.)

The restoration of the Lanning Fountain was largely completed by Commencement 1998. While minor details, including additional landscaping, remain to be done, the fountain has reemerged as one of the small jewels of the campus and a handsome tribute to the woman it honors.


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