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.

Sculptor, Karl Bitter

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 December 1916, a newspaper article featured sketches of the new fountain, with an inset of sketches of Emily and Richard DePew.

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.

A. Stirling Calder, sculptor who completed the DePew Fountain

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?

One response to “University Park: Depew Fountain”

  1. Malcolm Cairns says:

    On the occasion of the centennial of the American Society of Landscape Architects, each state chapter was given the opportunity to award Centennial Medallions to heritage landscape designs. Here is the text for the University Square Medallion:

    Indianapolis, Indiana
    Landscape Architect: George Kessler

    University Square was planned as part of the Ralston Mile Square Plan for Indianapolis to be the site of a university. Since the state University was already located in Bloomington, only a small seminary existed on the site from 1833-1853. Its lecture hall served as Henry Ward Beecher’s first pulpit. The seminary was also the location of Indianapolis’ first high school. The structure was razed in 1860, replaced by the construction of a temporary “coliseum”. After that structure was demolished the site languished. In 1876 as part of a national movement for the creation of urban parks, the square was laid out as a Victorian park: radiating curvilinear walks and benches, small fountains, and a central bandstand. The square was redesigned in 1914 by George Kessler in the more modern, renaissance-revival style typical of the City Beautiful era. The Square is the southern terminus of a five-block long civic center mall connecting the Public Library and the Federal Courthouse. The plan geometry of University Park is bi-laterally symmetrical with a double walk serving as the north-south axis connecting the Beaux Arts Court House and the monumental structure of the Indiana War Memorial. Radiating diagonal walks connect at the Park’s central feature, the DePew fountain designed by Karl Bitters and A. Stirling Calder. Statues of Abraham Lincoln and Schuyler Colfax, and the Benjamin Harrison Memorial are additional features of the Square. The square is bounded by uniformly spaced street tree plantings. The park has been a favored green haven for over a century.

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