Hydrant GPM— Gallery Of Patriotic Miniatures
The image of Benjamin Franklin has been preserved in portraits and statues and on postage stamps and half dollars. Now, old Ben’s cheerful likness shines from fire hydrants on many of the streets of South Bend, Ind., where fire plugs have undergone a face-lifting in honor of the bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The squat caricature of Franklin is just one of the revolutionary figures designed by Ruth von Karowsky, a resident of South Bend and a founder of the South Bend Beautification Foundation (SBBF), a cultural byproduct of the painting campaign.
The project started rather innocently on Labor Day in 1972, when Mrs. von Karowsky painted a hydrant in front of her home.
As she recalled, “My plan was to present to the Board of Public Works and Safety a new design for fire plugs which would, presumably, remain on the periphery of the new mall planned for downtown South Bend.”
Her concept of hydrant design became the brainchild for South Bend’s means of commemorating the 200th anniversary of American independence. When the legal differences were resolved (each city has its own ordinances dealing with the color of the hydrants), Mrs. von Karowsky formed the SBBF to upgrade the cultural standard’s of the city, which is presently undergoing a massive urban redevelopment. The fire hydrant campaign became the primary objective of the organization. Out of the some 4000 plugs in the city, the foundation and its staff of interested citizens have decorated over 1000, many of them on the way to the Notre Dame Campus.
Mrs. von Karowsky produced a copyrighted book of blueprints for some 50 different figures, ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Baron von Steuben to her own creations, such as Wilbur and Quigley, two minutemen.
Just who paints the hydrants?
“Actually, there is quite a cross section of persons who have painted hydrants, from school children to the elderly,” says the designer. “It’s the average person who cares about the community. I consider private citizen involvement in the community to be quite important.”
The painting takes four or five hours.
At the outset of the project, there was some question as to whether South Bend fire fighters would be able to locate the newly designed plugs at night.
“I think that our fire fighters deserve more credit than that, and certainly more credit for their intelligence,” said Mrs. von Karowsky. “Besides, all fire fighters are instructed at the various stations to memorize the location of hydrants.”
South Bend Chief Jack R. Bland echoed Mrs. von Karowsky’s remarks, saying that the hydrants are attractive and provided no problem. Bland went on to say that “the project tends to bring people together, especially at a time when some people are tearing down, we’re building up . . . and I think it’s good.”
How does the average fire fighter feel about the tiny heroes being painted on the plugs? Most are relatively indifferent to the designs and display little commitment in either direction.
“It doesn’t make much difference either way, as long as water comes out of it,” was the general reaction. Their major concern is that the hydrant tops remain any color except white, so that the plugs can be spotted easily during the winter.
As for the costs, Mrs. von Karowsky explained, “The hydrants were due to be repainted anyway. As far as quantity of paint goes, it takes no more to paint the image of George Washington than to paint the hydrant a basic yellow or red.”
O’Brien Paints donated half of the art materials, while the city government is taking care of the other half and the labor is voluntary.