Historic Detroit

Bagley Memorial Fountain

The Bagley Memorial Fountain was Detroit’s first public drinking fountain, created in 1887 with money from the estate of John Judson Bagley.

Bagley was a New York tobacconist who came to Detroit in 1846. He helped organize the Michigan Mutual Life Insurance Co. and the Republican Party, and served as Michigan’s governor from 1873 to 1876. Bagley’s house on Grand Circus Park was razed in 1913 to make way for the Statler Hotel.

When he died in 1881 at age 49, his will called for the construction of a drinking fountain for the people of Detroit that would provide “water cold and pure as the coldest mountain stream.”

The Romanesque-style fountain is the only known surviving work in Michigan of H.H. Richardson, widely considered one of America’s most important architects. That makes the fountain “the 19th-Century equivalent of something by Frank Lloyd Wright,” William M. Worden, retired director of Historic Designation for the City of Detroit and respected authority on Detroit’s architectural history, told HistoricDetroit.org. “It is one of the most important architectural structures in Detroit.”

The pink granite fountain cost about $7,000 ($143,675 today) to build. Richardson modeled the monument after a ciborium in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The fountain stands more than 18 feet tall with ornate Romanesque details at the top and Byzantine columns. In the middle is a fountainhead with four lion heads. Originally, two of the heads dispensed cold water that was chilled by ice packed around the fountain’s pipes. The other two dispensed regular temperature water.

Words on the cornice of the fountain tell the origin of the gift. The four sides say:

TESTAMENTARY GIFT FOR THE PEOPLE FROM JOHN JUDSON BAGLEY A.D. MDCCCLXXXVII

A 1907 newspaper article gushed about the fountain: “”Push the button and chew off all you want, perfectly hygienic, sanitary, germless, never need to wash out the cup nor wonder who has been drinking before you - perfection …”

Today, the fountain stands downtown on Cadillac Square, east of Campus Martius. This is the third place it has stood. It was erected at Campus Martius on Woodward at Fort Street next to City Hall before being moved to Woodward and Monroe in 1926. It then went into storage around 2000 during the Campus Martius reconfiguration until 2007, when it was reinstalled.

It was at this point, when the fountain was disassembled and put into storage, that the original lion fountainhead was stolen. It was never found and no one was ever charged. A reproduction has taken its place.

The fountain was added to the State Register of Historic Places on March 3, 1971, and to the National Register later that year, on Nov. 5, 1971.