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Varney Circle

The historic UH Manoa fountain used to be part of campus culture during its early years. Now, it’s dry and abandoned.

By: Jim Bea Sampaga

30 April 2019

What used to be a flowing, lively and center of campus culture, Varney Circle fountain is now dry and broken for a decade and there are no plans to fix it anytime soon.


Located in front of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s Queen Liliuokalani Center and historic Hawai’i Hall, the fountain is decorated with Hawaiian iconography is one of the first structures built on campus.

Built in 1934, young art instructor Henry H. Rempel and recent graduate Cornelia McIntrye Foley designed and raised funds to construct the fountain in honor of Ada Susan Varney, a highly regarded history teacher at the Territorial Normal School from 1911 to 1930.  Hawaiian iconography, which represents protection and peace, is repeated eight times around the walls of the fountain.

In 2019, this piece of UH History is all dried up now. (Jim Bea Sampaga)

Since its construction, the fountain was part of the university’s campus culture. According to the book, Building a Rainbow: a history of the buildings and grounds of the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus, the fountain was a favorite location for college pranks and couple dates. Students would usually ink the water or dump boxes of soap powder while couples would toss coins into the fountain to wish for a happy relationship together. At that time, Varney fountain was the Manoa version of the Trevi fountain in Rome.

A plaque on the fountain that commemorates history teacher Ada Susan Varney.

A closer look of the Hawaiian iconography on the walls of Varney fountain.

Occasionally, the fountain had to be turned off when there was a drought. But in 2006, it broke down and its water pumps had to be changed with brand new pumps. In total, the Varney fountain ran for about a year and a half, according to UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. And since 2009, the fountain has been broken and left to dry.


"That small room below the fountain, filled with water and shorted that brand new pump," Meisenzahl said.


To add to that, one side of the fountain is sinking which makes repair more difficult.


"It's sinking because the slab it's on is concrete and of course, if it's been there since [1934], everything settles right?" Meisenzahl said.


The fountain was built and attached to the storm gauge system to pump out unfiltered water–which is now against the law. The fountain doesn’t have a filtration system and there is no room underneath the fountain to install a new filtration system, according to Meisenzahl.


"Since it was built to the drain system which was probably legal back when it was built, that's one of the huge issues with it now and unfortunately there's no space to put a filtration system," he said.

Students gathered at the fountain to read a book and socialize. (Circa 1940s, University Archives)

If the fountain is to work again under these conditions, Meisenzahl said they would have to fill, pump and drain the water every month.


"That's labor intensive for our employees that more than, you know, we have more work than employees," Meisenzahl said.


During the 2008 recession, the University of Hawai'i was lucky enough to not be a part of the public universities that got their budgets slashed. But it had the University rethink of how they spend and prioritize their resources, according to Meisenzahl. He also mentioned the University's sustainability goal of net zero by 2035.


"These types of fountains that are especially out in the open, they don't meet our goals as a sustainable entity because the water evaporates so you're constantly having to fill it with water," Meisenzahl said.

Varney fountain circle and Hawaii Hall in 1934 when the fountain was built.. (University Archives)

A closer shot of Varney fountain circle and Hawaii Hall taken more than 30 years later. (Miyamoto Photograph Collection)

The fountain has been dry and abandoned in the middle of the campus with only occasional visits from the campus gardener to trim down the grass since it last broke down.


In order to bring life and diversity to the surroundings of the fountain, Orville Baldos, assistant researcher and professor from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, chose Varney Circle for his native Hawaiian plants landscape-design research project.


He uses the Varney Circle as experimental land to see if the plants can last under low maintenance. He wanted to showcase these plants to people prove that native Hawaiian plants are capable of being used for landscaping too.


"The reason why we planted native plants over there was–it was the most visible are in campus," Baldos said. "It has high traffic so people can see what's there."

Varney fountain circle in 2016. (Mari Galiher)

Some of Baldos’ students that helped landscape and plant ʻĀweoweo around Varney Circle in 2017. (University of Hawaii News)

Baldos was also a graduate student representative at UH Manoa's landscaping committee back when he was pursuing graduate studies from 2005 to 2013. He thinks Varney Fountain is worth saving because it's a historic structure in UH Manoa, especially since there are only a few water displays on campus.


"If maybe we're getting enough funding to sustain the maintenance then maybe it can be run as a fountain again," Baldos said. "It'll be nice to have a fountain actually, if we had the money."


It’s difficult to give a good estimate about how much repairs will cost, without checking the fountain first, including the pump system, piping, electrical system and the condition of the fountain, according to Blake Araki, UH director of Campus Operations and Facilities.


“If all of these components need repairs or replacement, the work can be close to six figures,” Araki said.

But if the piping, electrical and fountain foundation are still good, he said that it could be cheaper.

Although there are no plans of repairing the fountain, the University is planning to convert Farrington Road, Campus Road and Varney Circle areas into a pedestrian walkway just like McCarthy Mall. They want to get the vehicles out of the interior of the campus. When asked what will happen to Varney Circle, Meisenzahl said that's the question they are still planning to figure out.


"There's a lot of pieces to it so it fits a much larger plan so a lot of the things that we're looking at doing are still kind of a vision," he said. "They're not entirely sure how's that all gonna fit but since the question is out there, there are no plans to do anything [on Varney Circle] as of right now."


Meisenzahl believes the history of Varney Circle will still be remembered in some way when the pedestrian pathway plan goes through.

Varney Circle taken in 2019.

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