Death and the life of Monroe Park’s fountain

Posted at 1:51 AM, Aug 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-11 02:01:24-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond is the city of monuments, not fountains.

Our likely most famous water feature - apart from the James River - sits in the center of Monroe Park, and has for more than 100 years.

The Victorian style fountain with its lion-like gargoyles famously made the pages of Life magazine and newspapers across the country when it crushed the life out of a 17-year-old bricklayer who was climbing it during a park party 46 years ago.

Monroe Park fountain 7

And it languishes today without its accent lights and a decent coat of the proper paint, says local drumming legend Todd Woodson, one of the players in the preservation group Fans of Monroe Park.

"It's a big mystery," Woodson said of the fountain's origins. "It's been researched by many people... In the 1870s Colonel Cutshaw, who was the city engineer, put in a stone fountain, very similar to the fountain down at Capitol Square."

"And then later on, probably around 1908, the wrought iron, typically Victorian, beautiful, beautiful fountain was put in," Woodson said.

Monroe Park fountain 2

It's been an icon of Richmond ever since.

"Imagine," Woodson said, "the turn of the century: no television, no radio, no movies to speak of. Really, your social outlet, your entertainment, was to just walk around the park, take in the fresh air in the very tony West End at the time that Monroe Park was."

"And they would have bands out there," Woodson added. "That was the place to be. You would promenade the park in your finest. Even on the hottest days, you'd wear your finest."

Monroe Park has been a sweet gathering spot for much of its history. And for the most part the fountain was its anchor.

Every kind of protest and social gathering has happened there. The list of musicians and bands who have played in the park by the fountain is long and luscious, including Bruce Springsteen in 1969.

Monroe Park fountain 4

And there was live music in the park on that fateful day - May 10, 1970 - along with radio hits played by WTVR's Request Radio.

The park was hopping, with 1,500 young people attending, according to news reports at the time.

As longtime Richmond observer and commentator F.T. (Terry) Rea wrote, "Cool-Aid Sunday featured plenty of live music. Information booths and displays were set up by the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-users), the local Voter Registrar’s office and Planned Parenthood."

Monroe Park fountain 5

The event came soon after the Kent State shooting and big anti-war rallies in other cities.
Woodson recalls being there with some classmates from Tuckahoe Middle School.

"It was a super time," he said. "And there was someone actually from our junior high school that had gotten up on the fountain and was rocking it back and forth, and there was another young man that was up there as well. We saw it happen and it was like slow motion."

Doug Riddell, then 20 years old, was spinning tunes near the fountain for WTVR radio.

"We we're doing a remote broadcast," Riddell recalled.

"I look up and there are a couple of guys climbing on the fountain," he said. It was hot. Many were shirtless. "Everyone was having a good time," Riddell said.

Then . . .

Monroe Park fountain 6

"The fountain cracks. I could see one guy up there coming down. And people yelling," Riddell recalled from his home near Ashland. "I grab the two-way radio and ran over there."

He had no knowledge of first aid. Clearly the young man was mortally injured. Riddell, watching close up in horror, stepped back to radio for help.

The band had immediately stopped playing. People were running and crying out.
Riddell said his boss at WTVR, Don Dale, was on the scene (visible in the photograph of the attempted rescue) and told the young DJ to do a live report about the disaster.

Riddell said he started reporting, then "all of the sudden it dawned on me" - someone had just died right in front of him.

"Next thing you know," he said, "I was crying. Don looked at me and reached over and hauled off and slapped me. He said, 'Get a hold of yourself.'"

And Riddell said he did.

The young victim, who was soon declared dead at the Medical College of Virginia, was 17-year-old Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr., an apprentice bricklayer whose home address was listed as 3009 Stonewall Avenue in Woodland Heights, but was also known to stay with a relative in Oregon Hill.

His chest and head had been crushed. No one else was injured.

The tragedy changed the party and music scene in the park, at least for a while.

Monroe Park fountain

Of course, the fountain was restored as has endured since then - sort of.

It will be restored during the soon-to-begin transformation of our famous downtown park that is currently a playground for college students and others playing Pokemon Go, along with a sizable group of homeless people who gather daily by this 100-year-old plus fountain that truly has an unusual RVA story.

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