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Rachel at the Well's luck runs dry at Hurricane Ian's hands; The good news is she's salvageable

The Spirit of Fort Myers, a statue that locals affectionately call her Rachel at the Well because she’s depicted pouring water from an urn into a basin at her feet just a block away from Thomas Edison Congregational Church, is in need of being repaired after damage caused by Hurricane Ian.

In the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian, one Fort Myers community is drawing hope and inspiration from an iconic artwork.

She’s the Grecian maiden who welcomes residents and visitors to Edison Park on McGregor Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Her creator, Helmuth von Zengen, named her The Spirit of Fort Myers, but locals affectionately call her Rachel at the Well because she’s depicted pouring water from an urn into a basin at her feet just a block away from Thomas Edison Congregational Church.

“Rachel is just so special to us,” says Edison Park resident Gail Brady Dingee. “We’re in Edison Park and she just always been the touchstone to me of this beautiful area.”

Neighbor Kim Gaide concurs. “Rachel has been our oldest neighbor since we have lived here. She is the heart of our community other than the palm trees.”

A large part of Rachel’s significance lies in her ties to the past. She was commissioned by Uncommon Friends author James D. Newton, who tells in his book how Mina Edison summoned him to her home to complain that the sculptor was creating a nude. While the rest of the country may have been enjoying the daring styles that typified the Roaring ‘20s, Fort Myers was still pretty conservative. So Newton persuaded Von Zengen to cloak his maiden in a shift made from powdered marble, making lifelong friends of both Mina and her husband, Tom. So much so that Mina even agreed to do the unveiling.

As Ian formed, intensified and took aim at Southwest Florida, few Edison Park residents harbored much concern for Rachel’s safety and welfare.

“It’s so strange,” Gail Brady Dingee relates. “I didn’t really worry about Rachel. Obviously we didn’t realize how awful this was going to be, but she’s been here almost 100 years, since 1926, I just assumed Rachel would be fine.”

Since her dedication on April 8, 1926, Rachel has weathered a host of destructive hurricanes and tropical storms. That very summer, the Great Miami Hurricane ravaged Fort Myers, destroying the bridge being built out at Matlacha and leaving so much devastation that it put an end to the Land Boom that Florida had been enjoying at the time. In the decades that ensued, Rachel emerged unscathed from, among others, the deadly Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, Hurricane King in 1947, and more recently, Hurricanes Donna, Charley, Wilma and Irma.

But this time, Rachel’s luck finally ran out.

For most of her life, Rachel was sheltered from wind and rain by a flowering bougainvillea. Over the years, its stout branches had intertwined with the spires of a black wrought iron fence. The vine caught Ian’s 100-plus mile-per-hour sustained winds like the mainsail of a mighty schooner. The force of the wind toppled the wrought iron fence and one of two concrete pillars, leaving a pile of rubble that extended into the eastbound lane of McGregor Boulevard.

Shortly after the storm passed, long-time Fort Myers Public Art Committee member Carolyn Gora drove by the site and text “Our worst nightmare.”

As Edison Park residents emerged from their battered homes, they too became aware of Rachel’s plight.

“After the storm neighbors came by and said have you seen Rachel and I rushed down here and … yeah … you cry, you cried,” says Gail Brady Dingee.

It’s hard,” Paige Boothby adds. “I think we were both numb because so much had happened to us in just the last day or so and then coming down here it was just crushing to see what had happened to her. We just really thought she’d survive, you know.”

Several area arts supporters including the Public Art Committee’s Vice Chair, Victor Dotres, showed up this past Monday morning with ladders and pruning shears determined to find out if anything remained of the 96-year-old damsel. A short time later, Parks and Rec employees Carlos Rivera Comacho and Robert Malloy arrived with a clamp truck, bucket truck and chainsaws.

It took three long hours to painstakingly cut away the vines and lift the heavy fence from Rachel’s back. Although bent forward at the hip and suffering a gaping hole in her neck, Rachel survived!

Public Art Committee Vice Chair Victor Dotres describes the euphoria everyone experienced as Comacho and Malloy freed the maiden from the fence and the vines.

“When we got here, we actually couldn’t see anything because it was completely covered with shrubs and the fence but you could see her in there, and we weren’t sure how badly the sculpture was affected by the hurricane. But when the crane worker, the two workers from the City … came out and they started ripping off the bushes little by little, I felt very excited to see it finally get freed. And when he pulled the last fence part you could see all the bushes come free and it was almost like we were freeing her from all the shrubs. It was a really neat feeling to see it from the beginning to the end.”

Dotres was not the only one who copped to getting goosebumps.

Carolyn Gora text, “And now for some ‘good news.’”

That good news quickly spread throughout the neighborhood.

“Rachel really makes the neighborhood,” observes Edison Park resident Michael Posner. “She’s a beautiful statue … and we’re hopeful that she can be rebuilt and be made even better.”

While Rachel needn’t be rebuilt, some assembly will be required. The City’s Public Art Committee has already been in contact with a crack public art restoration team based in Miami, who they’d placed on standby well before Ian struck. After viewing photographs of the damaged sculpture, conservator Rosa Lowinger emailed, “Fear not … the sculpture is salvageable. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to give her a beautiful overhaul. Sometimes disasters bring opportunity.”

That’s a welcome assessment to Paige Boothby.

“If you were able to put Rachel back together, bless her, to me, it would be such a hopeful sign and I think it would be a signal to everyone who drives up and down McGregor and loves her from afar that we’re going to be okay.”

Fort Myers’ Ward Four Councilmember Liston Bochette, who also resides in Edison Park, takes this expression of optimism one step farther.

“She’s suffered a little bit. She’s almost 100 years old and she will symbolize, as we’ve renamed her before The Spirit of Fort Myers and give us a rallying point to work around as we rebuild our whole city, we have to thank Rachel for leading that way for us.”

Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “What’s in a Name” line from Romeo and Juliet, Gail Brady Dingee similarly finds renewed significance in Rachel’s given name.

“To me she’s always been Rachel at the Well, but when you read history about her, they refer to her as The Spirit of Fort Myers. It’s another name. I never really liked that particularly over Rachel and now, ironically, I kind of think she is going to be that.”

Yes, the spirit of Fort Myers may be damaged. We may be bent over, scuffed up and damaged from the neck down. But we’ve survived! And we will rebuild better and stronger than ever - with Rachel metaphorically leading the way.

Go here for more information on The Spirit of Fort Myers, her sculptor, Helmuth von Zengen and her unique history within the City of Fort Myers.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.