Lady of the Fountain: A Previous Owner Sheds Some History
Response to my March 7 History/Heritage page article concerning the “Lady of the Fountain,” has been overwhelming, to say the least. Most respondents support restoration and relocation of the statue to make her a more prominent fixture in the city’s future.
The strongest reaction came from three siblings of the family who owned the bronze statue from 1943 until 1979: John H. Zollicoffer, Jere P. Zollicoffer and Dr. Alice Mountcastle Zollicoffer. The information they supplied is truly invaluable.
John’s letter arrived first: “I received your article from my first cousin, James Alexander Summers, who lives in Atlanta. (The Lady of the Fountain) has experienced a fascinating history. You indicated that there was a gap in your history when the Lady ‘left town,’ and I would like to fill in that gap, as well as clarify a few minor points.”
John related the surprising, if not startling, account of how the Lady made the transition from a foul-smelling Johnson City dump to a fragrant flower garden in Henderson, NC. His grandmother, Alice Mountcastle Summers, widow of James Alexander Summers (former mayor of Johnson City instrumental in the statue’s fabrication) became aware of the Lady’s precarious circumstances and procured her from the city at a modest cost.
According to John, “This was apparently ‘just in the nick of time,’ as the Lady was already proceeding to be cut up into scrap metal. My grandmother had a piece along the statue’s legs fused back together (where it had already been cut) and apparently concrete was placed in that area by the prefabricators to stabilize the repair.” It appears that Mrs. Summers bought the Lady in 1943 for the sole purpose of saving her from an untimely demise. Whether her motives were related to the Lady’s glorious nostalgic past or to her potentially bright future can only be speculated; it very likely was both.
John added: “Alice Summers then had the statue removed to the garage at her [203 E. Watauga Avenue] home where it remained until 1950, when her daughter, Helen Summers Zollicoffer (my mother) retrieved it.” John recalled seeing the Lady at the Summers’ house. “I remember the Lady in my grandmother's garage until about 1950. I used to back her Chevrolet, bought from the Hill-Summers Chevrolet dealership, back and forth in her driveway.”
John has vivid memories of his mother thanking his grandmother for salvaging the stately statue. Alice often remarked just how close the Lady came to being cut into scrap metal for World War II recycling efforts. John’s letter further revealed how the statue ended up in North Carolina: “My mother married and moved 300 miles to Henderson. [She] was building a home and the fountain was put into operating condition so that water flowed out of the vase on the Lady’ shoulders, and it became the centerpiece of her home garden.”
Alice confided that when the Lady first arrived at her new home, she was renamed “Madam,” a word meaning “an expression of respect or polite address to a lady of refinement. “I was young when we moved into the Hargrove Street home. I do remember the Madam arrived in a wooden coffin and lay outside (with neighbors and riders-by commenting, of course) until she could be installed. I say this as [family members] used to retell that story – with Mom’s wit coming through – to me whenever The Madam came up.”
Jere offered this recollection: “What I remember was that one of the feet was destroyed before Mom got the Lady. When Mom fixed the broken leg, she had a foot made out of concrete - almost a perfect match to the other foot. The bronze paint covered it up very well.“
John’s letter made it perfectly clear that the Madam was a part of their family: “My mother had a pool built surrounding the fountain especially to accommodate the Lady, and the grandchildren frolicked in the waters and we have fond memories of visiting her everyday. The French doors to the dining room and our family room opened on to her and many large parties were held at her footsteps.”
Alice remembered calling a “doctor” numerous times for the Madam due to ongoing problems from the damage she incurred while in the city dump. “As I grew up in this house, I also remember her having many repairs when she had been “cut down … I loved her elegance – and marveled at her joy Mom took in her journeys. One of her finer pleasures, along with her roses.”
Helen Summers’ love for her Madam caused her refusal to part with her, despite several inquiries to have her returned to Johnson City. Madam Zollicoffer was not about to leave her North Carolina home.
John alleged that it took a change in ownership that finally allowed the statue to go back to Johnson City. “Following my mother’s death in 1979, her heirs sold the home to Charles P. Rose, Sr. (the father of television journalist and “60 Minutes II” correspondent, Charlie Rose).”
The sale of the estate was made with a specific request from the Zollicoffer family that “The Lady of the Fountain” be returned to Johnson City because of her historical significance. The Rose family eventually honored their request, donating the statue to Johnson City.
September 20, 1983 was “homecoming” day for the Madam, who went from being a Madam to being a Lady again. A Johnson City Press-Chronicle newspaper clipping proudly proclaimed: ”The Lady of the Fountain has made a graceful return to Johnson City to resume her role as part of the city’s history and future.”
John summarized his family’s view. “I want to emphasize that ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ was never mistreated in any manner while she was in the Zollicoffer family, but we restored her to a beautiful setting after my grandmother retrieved her. I can further assure you that the ‘Lady’ was very happy and content with us.”
John, you folks have certainly convinced me of that fact; I suspect you have of others as well.
John’s parting words were … “We hope that the “Lady of the Fountain” will again find a place of prominence and happiness in your fair City, which the Summers family all love very dearly.”
Perhaps the Zollicoffer family has given us an idea for the Lady, not standing over a drinking water fountain as she once did, but adorning a fountain that once again allows water to overflow her vase onto her shoulders… something to think about.
Thanks to input from the Zollicoffers, the story of the Lady is now nearly complete. Perhaps I can now contact Charlie Rose or some member of the Rose family who can finish the story of Johnson City’s magnificent “Lady of the Fountain.”