The Merrill Fountain opened in 1901 in front of the old Detroit Opera House that stood on Campus Martius.
The elaborately detailed, white marble structure was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, a pair of New York’s top architects who also designed the New York Public Library. It was commissioned by Elizabeth “Lizzie” Merrill Palmer in honor of her father, lumber baron Charles Merrill.
At the dedication ceremony, Merrill Palmer’s husband, Sen. Thomas W. Palmer, was provided “an opportunity to launch into a dissertation on the historic fountains of Europe,” William Hawkins Ferry wrote in his “The Buildings of Detroit: A History.” Ferry quotes the senator as saying: “As men were crowded into great cities and denied the frequent sight of the contact with water in agitation or repose, a craving for it, as a feature of the landscape, has led to construction of artificial lakes, cascades and fountains to cool the air, please the eye and soothe the ear, as well as supply the physical wants of the people.”
Sen. Palmer, a businessman in addition to being a politician, donated a huge swath of land that became the basis of Palmer Park - one of Detroit’s best known public venues. When Woodward Avenue was widened, the large fountain was relocated to Palmer Park in 1925 in an effort to ease traffic congestion downtown. The park bearing the family’s name was deemed an appropriate place to move the fountain. It was, Ferry noted, “a more idyllic setting.”
Of course, there was more to it than that. Newspaper accounts of the time also said the fountain was moved because it had become a nuisance, referring to “street urchins” diving for pennies that passersby had tossed into it.
But despite its beauty, the fountain has sat dry in Palmer Park for more than 50 years and largely neglected. Today, its reservoirs are filled with stagnant water, and large pieces of the fountain have been stolen by thieves or destroyed by vandals.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places Dec. 14, 1976.
More on this landmark coming soon.