For most of Kalamazoo’s lifetime, Bronson Park has graced the center of the city. Four successive fountains have helped make it a pleasant oasis amid the surrounding commercial din. The third, built with money left by Duncan McColl, was the only automatic fountain in the United States when it was completed in 1927. With its tumbling jets of water illuminated by colored lights, townspeople judged it a pretty sight in the evenings, but its daytime presence was unkindly described as “silo-esque.” Within a decade, Edward Rutz, who was then city manager, took the matter of the graceless fountain up with the Kalamazoo Business and Professional Women’s Club. The civic-minded women, with a vision of a more beautiful city, sponsored a contest for a design that would make use of the equipment from the McColl fountain and of the Depression-generated unemployed labor. The $250 first prize was won by Marcelline Gougler, a University of Illinois art instructor who had studied under well-known sculptor Alfonso Iannelli.
The Project Proceeds
When Gougler ‘s design was judged to have mechanical problems, Iannelli, a native of Italy and sometimes collaborator with Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects, was called in to consult. He designed a completely new fountain. Lydia Siedschlag, who had also been a student of his and who was then the head of the Art Department at what is now Western Michigan University, provided Iannelli with some information about Kalamazoo, particularly about the Indians from the area.
After some public input and revision, the fountain was constructed in 1939 and dedicated on 6 June 1940. The city contributed $7,500 to the cost, the remaining amount, approximately $30,000, came from depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA) funds. New lawns, gardens and pathways were added to harmonize with the design.
Theme and Design
The Fountain of the Pioneers, which occupies much of the east central portion of the park, depicts a westward facing settler facing an Indian in full headdress (which was a design element only—this headdress was never worn by Indians in this area), who actually stands outside the fountain. Together the pair forms a “tower” at the west end of the fountain. A decorative parapet to the east of the tower conceals the sprayers, pipes and other equipment. A glass and metal panel was to have projected from the head of the settler, indicating his vision for the city, but that was never constructed. In a 1940 statement prepared for the Kalamazoo Public Library, Iannelli stated that “the scheme of the fountain conveys the advance of the pioneers and the generations that follow, showing the movement westward, culminating in the tower-symbol of the pioneer while the Indian is shown in a posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances; the pattern of the parapet rail indicates the rich vegetation and produce of the land.” The scale and details were intended to harmonize with the recently built Art Deco City Hall and County Building that adjoined the park on the north and south sides and “would take its place naturally and be a quiet mass.” To the delight of evening strollers, its jets and cascades of water have at times been illuminated with colored lights.
The sculptural elements in the east pool are balanced by a reflecting pool to the west. To celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, local artist Kirk Newman installed a series of life-size bronze sculptures of local school children in the reflecting pool.
In common with many pieces of public art, the fountain is no stranger to controversy. Before it was even formally dedicated, B. L. Gilbert, then City Parks Superintendent, wrote to Iannelli that public opinion was “not generally complimentary. The layout as a whole seems to suit people, particularly the paths and pools, but they cannot understand the fountain.” That opinion seems to have persisted because, at least as early as 1989, the Gazette began recording, in the form of letters to the editor, a long-running argument among Kalamazooans about whether the fountain statue should remain or be replaced. Opponents of the work have deemed it racist, “horrendous,” “a monument to mistreatment,” even “evil.” The figure of the Indian is sometimes described as “kneeling,” although even a casual examination makes it clear that it is not, but simply standing at a lower level than the pioneer. Supporters have maintained that erasing the past does not change it, and wish to keep the fountain intact both as a reminder of the less than shining moments in our history, and as an example of the work of a prominent artist. A compromise position suggested that an educational plaque be placed near the fountain explaining its historical context.
Of course, a concrete structure exposed to the elements for decades can be expected to deteriorate. In late 1989, $60,000 worth of repairs were completed on the fountain and reflecting pools with the help of a Michigan Equity grant. Further plans were announced in 2012 to repair weather-damaged concrete, broken lighting, missing bronze plating and damaged mechanical elements, and to build a protective shield to prevent additional winter damage. As this is being written, plans are being made to raise funding for the project.
The Fountain of the Pioneers is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Bronson Park Historic District and was prominently featured in the nomination form that was submitted for that designation. It was listed on the Register in its own right on 28 June 2016. Despite the controversies that have sometimes swirled around it, it has been repeatedly praised by artists and scholars. Lydia Siedschlag called it “the finest thing we have.” The author of a recent book on Iannelli, David Jameson declared that “Kalamazoo is fortunate indeed to have a major public monument by a giant in American art.” And Bruce Goff, a well-known architect, spoke to the Kalamazoo Art League in 1974 and told them, “The first thing I did when I got into town was to go to Bronson Park to see if you still had the Iannelli fountain. I was delighted to see it, still operating and still in good shape. It’s a real credit to Kalamazoo that you have kept that sculpture.”