When Ralston originally platted the city of Indianapolis, he made no provision for parks. The populating of Indianapolis began in 1819 and by 1822, the population was approximately 500. Ten years later, the state legislature approved the lease of “square 25” of the Indianapolis plat map to the Marion County Seminary. Square 25 is the block bounded by New York, Meridian, Vermont and Pennsylvania streets. The Seminary constructed a building on the southwest corner of the square. That institution of higher learning educated many of the city’s earliest pioneers, and there is a far more detailed account on this square’s earliest history in Libby Cierzniak’s article here.
Through years of fighting over how the block should ultimately be used, some of the ways it was used include: 4th of July fireworks in 1879; in 1885 public opinion surfaced urging the addition of a fountain to the park; ground was broken on the monument for Schuyler Colfax in 1887; the public pleaded for the removal of the bandstand/ barn/ eyesore/ wooden “what is it,” in 1887 and by 1888 it was removed to the State Fair and Exposition grounds in what is today, Herron-Morton Place. The “eyesore” was replaced with a bed of flowers not long after the Colfax monument was unveiled.
A February 1896 article notes that a fountain basin would be placed at the center of University Park. It remained as an unadorned fountain for many years. In the summer of 1901, “University Park’s remarkable fountain threw its geyser spurt high in the air between succeeding waves in the basin, the benches around about were packed with men and women, young and old.”
In 1909, an article mentioned both the “university park fountain” and a fountain in the courtyard of the Federal Courthouse, north of building. Some people may not realize that the Birch Bayh Federal Building was not originally designed enclosed on all sides. See the image below.
When Emily DePew died in April 1913, she made a bequest of $50,000 to build a Memorial Fountain in memory of her husband, Dr. Richard J. DePew who died Feb 15, 1897. The widow’s will left it to the park commissioners to decide as to details like location and artist. Those decision makers chose nationally known sculptor, Karl Bitter, who had created statuary for Astors, Vanderbilts, and other famous, wealthy families and larger venues.
Karl Bitter was in Indianapolis in May 1914 to present two tablets he designed for the city’s art museum. One is the John Herron Art Institute Benefactor’s Tablet and the other a John Herron Memorial Tablet, ostensibly, to which additional names might be added through the years. Unfortunately, those are no longer displayed to the public, though an image is available here. At the time the tablets were introduced, the news mention the new fountain being designed.
Bitter was paid $1500 for a model 1/3 size of the real one and focused on a design of exuberant, youthful joy. Karl Bitter and his wife were leaving the Metropolitan Opera House when an automobile, attempting to avoid hitting a limousine accidentally ran over the artist; his wife was thrown to safety. He died the next morning at 6:30am of his injuries on April 10, 1915, age 47, in New York City.
A small contingent from Indianapolis was scheduled to visit the artist in his New York studio later that month to preview fountain designs. Bitter’s incomplete plastic sketch, was discarded by A. Sterling Calder, a Philadelphia sculptor selected to finish executing the design.
In September 1916, Stony Creek granite for the fountain was delivered. Charles J. Wacker got the contract for constructing the fountain. NYC architect, Henry Bacon visited on September 20 to inspect preliminary foundation work. He hired the local firm of Graham & Hill as local architects and made Donald Graham superintendent of construction on the fountain.
The design was described as having a Naiad as the top figure with water spurts to cardinal points of the compass, falling into the upper basin, then to the lower plinth and finally the larger pool at the bottom. This is all surrounded by nine dancing children and 24 fish.
On October 5, 1917 the bronze fixtures were being placed. On November 9, 1917, water was turned on for the first time with 100+ spectators on hand.
The final figures on the fountain are approximately 1/4 larger than life size, in order that they would appear life-size when in place.
In December 1956, presumably it was the parks department who decided to string garlands and lights from the top of the fountain. Could that have inspired the “Circle of Lights” which started in 1962, just a few years later?