Friday, January 21, 2022

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Butt Millet Memorial Fountain

A few weeks back, Shira and I were walking through DC and found ourselves perusing the National Christmas Tree display. Nearby, I saw the familiar Zero Milestone. I also noticed a tired looking fountain-statue-thing that I'd never really taken note of before.

A bit of research confirmed that I'd found the Butt Millet Memorial Fountain. While it may be obscure, it's worth getting to know.

Here's 4 fascinating facts about this easy-to-miss memorial.

1. It's a memorial that honors an early DC Bromance. The memorial honors two men, Archibald Butt and Francis Millet. Butt was a well known soldier; Millet an accomplished artist. While Millet was married, his wife lived out of town and Butt and Millet lived together, having a reputation for throwing lavish parties. Were they more than best buds? Even the National Park Service takes the time to note that while Millet was married he had several same-sex relationships in his lifetime.

2. Butt was a close friend to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. Notably, Taft considered him like a brother. Taft was so moved at his funeral that he broke down during Butt's eulogy and had to be led from the podium in tears.

3. Butt and Millet died together during the sinking of the Titanic, and the memorial makes a nod to this. These weren't merely two anonymous passenger who happened to be lost during a well known tragedy; their loss was front page news.

A day after the sinking of the Titanic, it was wrongly reported that Millet and Butt were both safe. Within 10 day of the sinking, there were already legends being published that Butt courageously helped with the rescue. While these legends have never been confirmed, it didn't stop the creator of the memorial fountain from incorporating them:

The central shaft [of the fountain] will reach a height of twelve feet. It is of classic design. Upon one fact it will bear and armed female figure, in bas-relief, representing Chivalry, having reference to Maj. Butt's aid to women and children on the occasion of the disaster in which he met his death; on the opposite face will be a similar figure representing Art, having special reference to Mr. Millet.

4. The memorial may (but probably didn't) have had a functional purpose. When I read this description of the Butt-Millet Fountain, I thought I'd connected some important dots:

On the south, a man with a helmet, sword, and shield represents military valor in honor of Butt. The fountain was designed to be used as drinking water for horses of the U.S. Park Police, but don’t imagine it is still used this way.

The idea that the memorial doubled as an equine drinking fountain is both clever and may explain its shape. And yet, I can't find any evidence to suggest this claim is true. Sure, the bowl of the fountain looks to be an at an ideal height a horse to take a drink; and it may have served that purpose on occasion. But, the description of the fountain when it was built neglects to mention this use. As late as 1934 there are descriptions of Washington, DC having purpose built horse drinking fountains. If such fountains existed, why make that part of a memorial?

In retrospect, the idea that you'd combine a memorial for two of DC's well known citizens who were tragically lost in a epic disaster with a place for horses to catch a drink seems pretty ridiculous.

Still, given the shape of the fountain, I can see how an urban legend like this would thrive.

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