November-December 2021

Fountain of memories

To honor a friend, Bethesda resident Barbara Martin decided to restore a piece of Glen Echo Park

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Barbara Martin still helps maintain the Glen Echo Park fountain she started fixing up in the spring of 2020. Photo by Louis Tinsley

For years, Barbara Martin passed a crumbling stone fountain overgrown with poison ivy and brambles while walking her dog through Glen Echo Park near her Bannockburn home in Bethesda. Once part of a miniature golf course at the former amusement park, it was an eyesore in need of repairs.

Then in April 2020, after Martin’s former University of Maryland roommate, Stephanie Beeler, shared the news that she’d been diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 cancer, Martin came up with an idea. Pandemic restrictions meant that she wouldn’t get to visit Beeler, who lived in Michigan with her husband and then 10-year-old son. “I couldn’t spend time with her or do anything to help,” Martin says. She’d been friends with Beeler, a career water expert for the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, for three decades. “I decided I’d hijack the fountain and restore it for her. …Act first and apologize later.”

Martin, who is co-CEO and co-founder of The Brand Guild, a public relations and events firm with offices in Georgetown and New York City, hauled a shovel, trowel and pails of water to the fountain. A home gardener, she started weeding and planting flowers that friends donated. Her husband, John, and children—Jack, 17, and James, 13—helped a bit and provided moral support. Four months later, Martin made her DIY efforts official—she emailed the Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture, which works with county and federal officials on park issues. “I told them I did this, and [board member] Ana Rasmussen was terrific about it,” says Martin, 50. “[She said], let us help you restore this beyond just flowers.”

After meeting with officers of the Partnership and the National Park Service in September 2020 (the fountain is on NPS property), Martin kicked off a “Secret Magic Garden” fundraiser for her birthday. “We had a masquerade brunch on Oct. 18, the earlier birthday I invented for myself in fall weather,” recalls Martin, whose actual birthday is Dec. 1. Her friends, wearing protective facemasks for COVID-19, assembled at the fountain to donate money and flowers for the effort.

One friend, Annie Groer, gave six iris bulbs initially planted in 1954 in Silver Spring by Groer’s mother. “They’ve been in constant bloom since President Eisenhower,” Groer says. “It’s so fitting they would revive this 1950s fountain for Barbara’s beloved friend.”

The brunch and online appeals raised $25,000, which allowed for more extensive improvements. Bevan Shimizu, an arborist who grew up in Glen Echo, donated his time to devise a landscaping plan for the area around the fountain, using all native trees, grasses and bushes. A mason repointed the stone base. Trees were pruned, and invasive bushes, poison ivy and more weeds were removed. The fountain’s aged water feature was too badly damaged to replace and not necessary with all the new plantings, Martin says.

Martin sent Beeler photos of the renovation and the fountain, flowering with black-eyed Susans and irises, to cheer her up while she was undergoing treatment. “She was really pleased,” Martin says. “She loved all the pictures and sent me texts about it.”

National Park Service rules do not allow individuals or companies to name anything in national parks, but Martin started calling the structure “The Beeler Fountain” anyway—and it stuck.

Beeler died at age 49 on July 30, 2020, three months after the initial cleanup. Her death prompted Martin to expand her efforts, establishing a GoFundMe campaign and an Instagram page to make a more permanent memorial for Beeler. “She was an amazing human,” Martin says. “A perfect mix of New Jersey tough and a hippie chick. We went on the road and saw the Grateful Dead all over the country. We’d sell ice pops to keep our trips going.” She remembers one spring break when they didn’t have the money to vacation like many students. With all the extra time on their hands, Beeler had the pair tie-dye nearly everything in their apartment. “We were always pranksters together,” Martin says.

Recently, Martin witnessed a small wedding in front of the fountain—a couple walked up with a minister, a few friends and some flowers. “I was weeding and they asked if I could move so they could have their ceremony there,” she says.

Martin is planning an annual event in the hopes of raising $25,000 a year to maintain the fountain and the surrounding grounds. “The first time I saw a little girl playing on the fountain I burst into tears,” Martin says. “Stephanie would have loved it.”