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Detroit's fountain of mirth

Belle Isle’s Scott Fountain

Was it his last and greatest joke? That was the burning question all over town when Detroit’s most eccentric bachelor, James Scott, died at 79 on March 5, l9l0, bequeathing his $500,000 estate to the city to build a fountain on Belle Isle.

No near relatives survived to contest this seemingly generous gesture. But none were needed to stir up a hornet’s nest. One string was attached to the bequest: Along with the fountain, the will provided, the city would erect a life-size bronze statue of the donor.

“Only a good man who has wrought things for humanity should be honored in this way,” protested Bishop Charles D. Williams. The bishop’s lead soon was followed by aldermen, civic leaders and citizens. Everybody in town seemed to be talking about Scott.

ImageA monument to Scott on Belle Isle. Note the “keep off” sign.

    He was a loafer and a gambler, it was pointed out. He told off-color stories. And he perpetrated vindictive practical jokes.

The “Hog Block” was one. Falling out with his neighbors, the respected McMillans who operated Detroit’s leading grocery store at Fort and Woodward, Scott affixed to his house on the side toward the store, a huge carving of a hog.

“Scott’s Folly” was another. When the owner of an adjoining lot refused to sell Scott some land that he wanted to add to his property at Park and Peterboro, Scott spent $20,000 to build a sham house. From the Peterboro side it looked like a mansion, but its elegant facade was attached to a high, windowless wall, whose only purpose was to shut out light from the home of the recalcitrant neighbor.

As the furor about building a monument to such a prankster reached its peak, the size of the statue for Scott became a subject of much drollery.

Dr. F. D. Leete, pastor of Central Methodist Church, thought a statue “about 2-1/2 inches high” might not mar the beauty of the fountain, besides being suitable to the moral stature of the subject. But life size? That was too much. On the other hand, a reader proposed in a letter to The Detroit News that the statue of Scott be l2 feet tall, displaying him “surprised, like Diana, in the bath.”

ImageThe west side of Woodward Ave. between Congress and Fort Street prior to the turn of the century. John Scott, father of James, lived in the building adjoining the McMillan Wholesale Grocers store.

    Another letter, signed “Monguagon”, suggested roulette wheels and poker chips as appropriate embellishments for the fountain. And Dr. William B. Forbush, of Northwestern Congregational Church, argued that there already were too many fountains on Belle Isle. The city should wait, he said, “until somebody donates funds for removing one.”

J. L. Hudson, the merchant prince who headed the Detroit Municipal League, summed up the case against acceptance of the bequest in a few brief but telling words: “Mr. Scott never did anything for Detroit in his lifetime and he never had a thought that was good for the city.”

Hudson’s summary gave pause to some of the proponents of the fountain. It was true that Scott’s career didn’t seem to have the historic significance that called for a monument.

ImagePicnickers enjoy a stroll on a bucolic Belle Isle around 1920.

    His father wisely had invested in Detroit real estate and left him a fortune, and it was said that Jim Scott never was known to do an hour’s manual labor in his life.

His days were spent as a leisurely man-about-town, enjoying convivial talk and pleasant companionship. His best reputation seemed to be among waiters, newsboys and other servitors, among whom he was known as a generous man with tips.

On August 23,1873, at the bar of the Russell House Scott bought the first copy of the Detroit News from a newsboy, Jack Shepherd who had hung around The News’ offices for days for the chance to sell the first paper. Later it was reported Scott gave him a quarter and let him keep the change. The price of the paper was two cents.

Just as it seemed that the tumult about Scott’s bequest would end the project, strong voices for acceptance began to be heard. One was that of Alderman David Heineman, who carried weight in the City Council.

ImageAn aerial view of the fountain taken by Detroit News photographer William Kuenzel in 1930 from a Detroit News airplane.

    Speaking to reporters gathered in the office of Mayor Philip Breitmeyer, Heineman said: “I can look around this office and see pictures of men who played poker with Jim Scott. I say the bequest should be accepted.” He also recalled that “Jim always liked Belle Isle and loved to see the children there.”

The mayor agreed with Heineman. “I don’t believe the city has a right to insult any of her citizens by refusing a gift for such a good cause,” he said.

In the end, their view prevailed. It took more than l5 years, but Breitmeyer lived to attend the fountain’s dedication in l925. Cass Gilbert, the New York architect who planned the Detroit Public Library, won a competition for design of the glistening white memorial at the lower end of the city’s pleasure island.

ImageNeptune spouts water at the base of the fountain.

    Gilbert drew motifs from Detroit’s history. A great outer bowl of marble was reached by ascending steps, and three concentric marble rims led up to the main bowl. A central pedestal of carved figures upheld the topmost basin.

A many-jetted circular spray of water rose from the rim, with the main jet in the center towering skyward. Visitors found Neptune depicted on the fountain. There were dolphins, lions and turtles spouting crystal streams of water. And, in a touch that Jim Scott surely would have approved, they found plenty of archaic Greek drinking horns.

Today children love it…children of all ages. Scott’s bronze figure is seated, seemingly watchful of the fountain’s sprays and looking beyond them to the towers of Detroit rising against the sky downriver.

Youngsters delight in sitting in Scott’s lap. They crawl over his statue as happily as children crawl over the statue of Hans Christian Andersen in New York’s Central Park.

If the fountain was Scott’s last joke, time has made the jest a kindly one.By Don Lochbiler