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Roney Fountain Ceremony Brings Together Families

Roney Fountain Ceremony Brings Together Families

Roney, Duke families celebrate restoration of fountain to its original glory

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roney fountain
Gardens visitors enjoy a moment on the rim of the Roney Fountain during the dedication ceremony Wednesday. Photo by John Gardiner

Durham, NC - The dedication of the restored, century-old Roney Fountain at Sarah P. Duke Gardens grew into a family reunion Wednesday evening, with Roney and Duke family members gathering to enjoy two things many had never seen before: distant relatives and the fountain itself.

"The Roneys have always been dedicated people to this university, and this is Roney Day to me," said Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, to whom the restoration of the fountain is dedicated.

Family members traveled from nearby Alamance County, New England and elsewhere to see the restored fountain, the centerpiece to Duke Gardens' circular Rose Garden and to learn about its history.

Anne Roney, sister-in-law of Washington Duke, donated the fountain in 1901 to what was then Trinity College in Washington Duke's honor. Washington Duke was one of Trinity College's early benefactors, and Duke University was named in his honor. Mary D.B.T. Semans is Washington Duke's great-granddaughter, and the granddaughter of Sarah P. Duke, the Gardens' namesake.

The fountain fell into disrepair over the decades. With magnolia trees overshadowing it, many people didn't even notice it was there.

Duke Gardens, meanwhile, was seeking a fountain. An early master plan for the Rose Garden had called for one, but it had never been built. Instead, ever-changing plantings formed the circle's centerpiece.

"Every time you've walked down the stairs, you've looked at this beautiful Rose Garden and you've realized it needed something to complete it," Duke University President Richard Brodhead told the crowd of about 75 people at the dedication. "It needed something to catch the eye at the center."

Brodhead marveled at "the story of how then Duke Gardens is planning to put in a water feature and somebody has the bright idea, 'What if we take this one that has been part of our heritage for 100 years that no one has seen for X years? What if we made that the fountain?'"

That notion changed the fountain's fate. The lower tier -- all that had remained of the original three-tiered, bird-bedecked structure -- was removed from East Campus and brought to Robinson Iron in Alabama, which had bought the original molds from their creator. Then the newly built fountain and its original basin were moved to the Rose Garden, the first major feature visitors see after entering through the Gothic gates. An elegant new plaza now surrounds the fountain. The Rose Garden itself will be redesigned this summer.

"Who could believe that when you put it up, it would have this extraordinary graciousness?" Brodhead asked the crowd, as he stood before the fountain. "The crane, the wings, the water falling off the bird's back -- it fits the place so perfectly that now you know two weeks from now people will come and they'll say, 'Wasn't it great that that fountain was put there when they first created Duke Gardens?'"

A bequest from the late Dr. J. Robert Teabeaut II (T '45, M.D. '47) paid for the restoration. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation provided additional funding for the project, as did the Thomas S. Kenan Foundation, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and other donors.

Semans, in a brief speech, honored a number of people from the past and present who helped make the fountain restoration -- and Duke Gardens -- possible, from Anne Roney to Norfleet Webb, the Gardens' first superintendent, and Dr. Frederic Hanes, one of the original faculty members at Duke Medical School, who had the initial idea to start a garden in what was an undeveloped ravine. Semans remained long after the ceremony to chat and pose for photos with Roney relatives.

Dean Holt, who heard about the fountain on Facebook, came from Rhode Island for the dedication. The Holt and Roney families are intertwined, he said, and he is the grandson of Dean Roney Holt.

"It was a very special occasion," he said, "and one of those once-in-a-lifetime events when you get to see a dedication like that of something that will be enjoyed by lots of people but is especially meaningful to members of the family."

After this summer's Rose Garden redesign, it will be renamed the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden. The entrance alley and stairs also will be transformed. Work will begin on a new handicapped-accessible path next week.

Brodhead, in his speech, said the fountain serves as an elegant symbol of generosity, particularly by Anne Roney, who helped raise Washington Duke's two children, Duke University benefactors Benjamin N. Duke and James Buchanan Duke, after their mother died.

"The fact that she gave this fountain helps us to remember all that family linkage, all that generosity of people stepping in to fill voids in one another's lives," he said. "It's just a lovely thing to have there. And then to have it linked with the name of Mary Semans and her foundation, which is redoing the Rose Garden, it just sort of weaves together all the moments in the history of this place in something that is so totally beautiful."

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