The Annie C Stewart Memorial Fountain is a piece of Victorian art that has been located in Vilas park since 1925. The statue, located at the top center of the fountain, depicts a mermaid and two tritons pouring water into the base of the fountain.
Annie C. Stewart led a life of charity from her birth in 1867, and her death in 1905. According to newspapers, she struggled with Major Depressive Disorder and died by suicide. After her death, Stewart’s mother left $2,000 for the construction of a memorial fountain in her daughter’s honor. Construction on the fountain was completed twenty years later, in 1925.
According a Wisconsin State Journal article written in 1924, the structure was made of white marble from Vermont, which was said to be the best stone for statutory purposes.
Almost a century later, the fountain is showing its age. It has been repeatedly vandalized and subjected to repeated Wisconsin winters. Now, cracks, missing material, vegetation, discoloration, and corrosion impact the beauty of this Victorian piece. The fountain is partly obscured by a gray cloth to protect it from further degradation.
Karin Wolfe, Madison’s Arts Administrator, has been advocating for the reconstruction of the fountain since 2006 alongside a neighborhood working group.
“I do believe it should be saved in some form or fashion. I do believe whatever is left is an important part of our historical legacy. In some way, it’s one of our city’s oldest pieces of commissioned public art.” says Karin Wolfe.
According to a report from a Chicago-based consultant group that was commissioned to analyze the statue’s condition over the last year, minimal or moderate preservation at its current site isn’t feasible. That’s due to, among other things, bio growth, ground penetration, corrosion of internal steel, discoloration and deposits, extensive cracking, and more.
And now, the city is asking for your feedback about the fountain’s path forward. A short online survey asks the public to choose from a range of conservation options, from relocating the sculpture to an indoor or outdoor site with a new base.
The survey also asks whether the statue should remain in Vilas Park, with a reconstructed fountain and base surrounding it, which would be the most expensive option.
Additionally, the survey asks community members for possible funding sources, since the project could cost anywhere from one hundred and forty five thousand dollars to four hundred and twenty five thousand dollars.
But like many public art projects, the fountain is not without controversy. For one, it’s located adjacent to a collection of Ho-Chunk effigy mounds called the Vilas Park Mound Group, and would no longer be permitted to be placed in its current location due to the historic nature of the mounds.
“What is our obligation to the history of the people who lived on this land? We are living here and we need to share the stewardship of the land and the water” says Karin Wolfe
And as Wolfe points out, there are few public artworks in Madison from artists of color.
Yet the controversial location of this piece may not be the only significance to the community surrounding it. The statue also represents the story of Annie C Stewart and the following stigma of mental illness that has taken the lives of Madison community members.
“I am deeply interested in the story of Annie C. Stewart. It seems to be a death by suicide, where she went out one night and didn’t come home and for a family to acknowledge a stigma such as mental health may be important because of the impact of suicide and mental anguish” says Karin Wolfe.
A member of the neighborhood working group, Jim Norman, outlined his work along with the city on the cost and value of restoration of this piece.
“Our group has been working for over a year now with city staff and the city alder to try and get a public input process going and make some decisions about what should happen to the fountain because it’s been deteriorating for a long time, and something needs to be done. Doing nothing is not an option.” says Jim Norman.
The value of this piece, and its location, is all up to the survey results, along with policy makers and fund contributors in Madison. The survey will close a week from today, on Monday March 20, and will be linked in the online version of this story at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DJP9KM8