Bagley Memorial Fountain

Cadillac Square near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit

John Judson Bagley was born in Medina, New York in 1832.  While he was still a school child, his parents moved to Michigan where he lived in several towns in the southern part of the state.  At age 14 or 15, he moved to Detroit and went to work in a shop that produced chewing tobacco.  Within a few years, he purchased the shop from his former employer and established the Mayflower Tobacco Company.  His firm flourished.  You might think it is odd that Detroit became a leading center for the manufacture of tobacco products in the Nineteenth Century.  This is explained by the productivity of Ontario farms.  That is, southern Ontario provided fertile land for growing tobacco when most of that product was used for chewing tobacco, snuff and cigars.  By 1900, J. B. Duke had invented the highly efficient machine that rolled cigarettes.  The cost of consuming tobacco decreased as machine-made cigarettes were much less costly than hand-rolled cigars that were once made in great numbers in a dozen or more Detroit factories.  Production shifted to the South since tobaccos in that area were most suitable for cigarettes. And Cuba replaced southen Ontario as the souce of the best tobacco for cigars.

It was common for successful Nineteenth Century businessmen to enter the civic and political arena. John Bagley was elected to the Detroit School Board in 1855.  Five years later he was elected to the city's Common Council.  He served on Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners for seven years beginning in 1865.  In 1872, he ran successfully as the Republican candidate for Michigan Governor and was reelected for a second term two years later.  Bagley was a prohibitionist.  I believe that he was the first governor to impose a state tax on liquor.  He also established the state's first fishing commission and the state's first board of health.  He was an active entrepreneur. After his service in Lansing, founded an insurance company.

Bagley died at age 49 in 1881.  He left five thousand dollars for the construction of a fountain that would provide Detroit residents with clean, cold water.  This would be a strange bequest in the Twenty-first Century, but it was a reasonable one in the early 1880s.  By the later decades of the Nineteenth Century, it was becoming well known that while urban death rates from contagious diseases were extremley very high, some neighborhoods had much lower death rates than others.  Those neighborhoods that had clean water supplies and good sewer systems generally reported proportionally fewer cases of contagious disease than neighborhoods lacking municipal water and sewers.  The early public health movement in the United States stressed the need for these services.  In Detroit, the municipal water system was gradually extending its lines through the city, but in the 1880s, some neighborhoods were not well served.  Historians of Detroit, such as Olivier Zunz, have pointed out that prosperous neighborhoods generally got city water more quickly than low-income immigrant neighborhoods.  Thus, Bagley's gift of water was a good one but within a few years, most of the city was served by water and sewer lines.  He might also have been motivated by his beliefs in temperance.  With his gift, Detroit residents would not have to go to a tavern to obtain something safe to drink.  Before the development of city water systems,, spirituous beverages were much safer to drink than unpurified water.  The Bagley Fountain was the city's first free public water fountain.

Bagley's heirs selected Henry Hobson Richardson as the architect for the fountain.  Richardson, who graduated from Harvard in 1859 and then studied Beaux-Arts architecture in Paris, was the nation's leading architect at this time.  His works are linked to the Romanesque styles of Italy and southern France.  His own design is characterized by his extensive use of large rough hewn stones.  The Bagley Fountain is the only Richardson work in Michigan.  His style is illustrated, to a great degree, in First Congregational Church and Our Lady of the Rosary Church on Woodward and by the home John Bagley's son built, the John N. Bagley home on East Jefferson.

Richardson selected, as his inspiration for this fountain, the ciborium of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.  It is twenty-one feet high and has a base seven feet in diameter.  There are four lion heads that once spouted the water.  Bagley's will called for clean and cold water.  Richardson designed the fountain so that blocks of ice could be lowered into it during Detroit's warm months.  Two of the lion's heads provided water at an ambient temperature and two provided iced water.  There are four Byzantine columns that help to define four arched openings, each facing a lion's head.  There is extensive foliate carving throughout.  The fountain is capped by a smooth pyramidal top.  It is a beautiful structure that does not get the attention it merits.  There is an impressive combination of philanthropic and artistic interests in the structure you see.  Bagley wanted to give Detroit residents clean water to minimize their diseases, while Richardson used to opportunity to illustrate the skills of the most accomplished architect in the country.

From 1887 to 1926, this fountain was located at the corner of Woodward and Fort.  At some point, I presume it was unneeded since city water probably served all of the populated neighborhoods within Detroit.  From 1926 to 2000, the fountain was located at Campus Martius.  From 2000 to 2007 when Campus Martius was remodeled, the fountain was in storage.  In 2007, it was related to Cadillac Square where you may find it now.

Architect: Henry Hobson Richardson
Date of Construction: 1887
Architectural Style:  Richardsonian
Material: Pink Bragville granite from Worcester, Massachusetts
Use in 2013: Public Art and Sculpture
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed November 5, 1974. This is the only structure in this historic district.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P4479, Listed March 3, 1971
National Register of Historic Places: Listed November 5, 1974
Picture: Ren Farley
Description updated: February, 2013



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