Featured in History group, June 28, 2009.
Location: Wingra and Erin Streets; Madison, Wisconsin
On a hill above the black bear exhibit and the old pedestrian entrance in back of the Vilas Zoo , is a fountain in a little neighborhood playground park. Visiting it feels like trespassing, because it is literally at the front door of someone’s house.
The site was given to the city in 1911. Mary Stewart and her husband Frank, a clerk in Federal court, funded the project as a memorial to their daughter Annie. Frederic J. Clasgens, an artist who studied with Rodin, was selected to design the fountain. He devised concentric circles and shallow basins, spilling into a concrete 21 foot-diameter basin capped by a triton, a mermaid and a porpoise sculpted from white Italian Carra Marble. Water filled smaller shells at various levels, to provide drinking water for adults and children. The fountain was completed in 1925, but the Stewarts never saw the completed memorial to their daughter as they had both died. At one time, water from the fountain was recycled to water the zoo animals below.
E.N. Warner, president of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association, said of the fountain that year, “It will be highly cherished and admired by the Madison citizens and the thousands of visitors from other parts of the state and country who come to the park each year.” But the fountain, and memory of Annie Stewart, have not survived well. Water no longer pours from the marble conch shell cradled in the mermaid’s arms as it once did. The water that filled the basin today collects only rainwater, leaves and twigs. By 1931, vandals had attacked the fountain with sledge hammers or other similar tools. They destroyed the triton figure and the drinking fountains. A sorry memorial to Annie Stewart, in whose memory the fountain was erected.
Attempts have been made to generate interest in restoration of the fountain. About 1991, a donor was found to underwrite modest repair work. At that time some cement work was done but the project was halted when it was learned that the fountain could not be repiped. The original water system was gravity-based, with water flowing from the fountain to the zoo and then recirculated to the fountain, a system no longer feasible. Somewhat later, an unrealistic bid on statue repair was received and nothing further was been done. The Madison Arts Commission and Madison City Parks Department have declared the Annie Stewart Fountain an at risk piece of public art. It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent further decay, and to repair and restore, the Annie Stewart Fountain to some form of it’s former glory.