The citizens of Evanston marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence not with a bronze or granite monument, but with a fountain.

They raised the funds by popular subscription, then presented Centennial Fountain to the village trustees, asking that they pledge to care for and protect it as a public trust “for all time.”

The two-tiered, cast iron fountain boasted water-spouting birds variously called cranes, storks, herons, and even swans. It sat on a swampy patch of ground in downtown Evanston.

On July 4, 1876, the original Centennial Fountain was dedicated.  Photo from Evanston Photographic Studios.

On July 4, 1876, the whole village turned out for a daylong celebration whose highlight was the 3 p.m. oration “The Ministry of Water.” Lawyer Edward Taylor captured the spirit of Frances Willard’s town, calling the fountain a symbol of the “temperance and sobriety” so “essential to a nation’s life.”  

Fountain Square:
The Prequel

Philo Judson’s 1854 plat of Evanston deviated from a north-south grid only downtown. There, he twisted 14 blocks at a rakish angle and left an empty space where five streets converged. Known as Five Corners until it became Fountain Square in 1876, the “breathing area in central Evanston” was praised as brilliant planning before being disparaged as a traffic hazard. Located a bit southwest of today’s square, the small patch of land sat in the middle of Sherman Avenue where Sherman, Orrington, and Davis meet.

Fountain Square, right in the middle of Sherman Avenue where Sherman, Orrington, and Davis meet.  Photo courtesy Northwestern University Archives.

Early on, the spot had but one claim to fame. A makeshift roadway of rail and hay passed through its center. This unsightly “road” was the only place early residents could cross the slough that stretched from Northwestern University to south Evanston and get from the east ridge (now Chicago Avenue) to the west ridge (now Ridge Avenue).

The Perils of a Prime Location

In the days when horses ruled the roads, as many as 30 at a time drank from Centennial Fountain. By 1900, motor vehicles were putting horses to pas-ture. Chicago Surface Lines brought the electric streetcar to town in 1893, and the mayor agreed to remove the fountain and Council allocated the entire cost of $600 for an exact replica.

The John H. Mott Iron Works of New York, which cast the original fountain, made the duplicate. An alderman allegedly took the basins of the 1876 fountain home for safekeeping, while the topmost bird flew to a permanent roost in the Evanston Historical Society.

Threats to Fountain Square multiplied as vehicles proliferated. By 1915, aldermen were again eyeing the square. Streetcar riders needed a waiting room, they said; the tracks should be straightened; a confusing traffic pattern was causing accidents; and automobile parking was an issue. But while some considered the square outmoded, the Evanston Index joined a chorus of residents pushing to preserve their town’s unique symbol.

This Square, It Has Three
Corners … and a War Memorial

The fountain bubbled on until 1926, when a War Memorial Committee proposed keeping the land and trees, but relocating the fountain. Fountain Square defenders put on a show, outdoing the five-year-old tradition of lighting a holiday tree with a dazzling tribute to 50 years of Edison’s incandescent bulb that reinforced Fountain Square’s special place in Evanston’s collective psyche. The last streetcar rolled out of town in 1935; the fountain stood its ground.

Fountain Square, c. 1945. Looking east on Davis Street.  Photo from Evanston Photographic Studios.

The Traffic Bureau joined the debate, arguing that the fountain added to the confusion and danger at the five-point intersection. From 1937-40, a rash of ideas surfaced. The one plan approved by all the requisite agencies was put on hold when the country went to war. Then, amid the post-World War II boom, Centennial Fountain became a victim of traffic congestion. In 1946, a crew dismantled and removed it.               

A new, triangular square took shape farther east. The dedication of the square with its three-basin, recirculating granite fountain and granite cenotaph listing Evanston’s war casualties took place on Armistice Day 1949.

In 1946, the fountain was removed from Fountain Square and replaced three years later with a war memorial.  Photo from Evanston Photographic Studios.

That same year, citizens recovered the 1912 replica fountain and permanently situated it in the Merrick Rose Garden. Restaurateur Vera McGowan underwrote the restoration, and on July 4, 1951 – the 175th anniversary of the Declaration – she cut the ribbon at the dedication. Safely out of the mainstream and standing proud, the fountain still lends sparkle to the garden.

In 1951, General Douglas McArthur, his wife and son visited Evanston. The General laid a wreath at the base of the flag pole in honor of Evanstonians who died serving their country.  Photo from Evanston Photographic Studios.

Part II

The American Bicentennial of 1976 was the impetus for another Fountain Square revamp. Jets in each of three hexagonal basins sent water skyward. The war memorial went into storage, replaced by bronze plaques on brick columns with the names of the City’s war dead from the Civil War to Vietnam. The space was renamed Veterans’ Memorial Plaza in 2003; Evanston still called it Fountain Square.

The plaza soon fell into disrepair. At a Veterans’ Day service in 2007, Mayor Lorraine Morton lamented its dilapidated condition and asked the City to “make improvements immediately.” A rededication in 2008 capped the effort. But it was not enough.

City staff noted the worn paving, poor lighting, badly functioning pumps, inadequate seating, and problematic accessibility. In Oct. 2014, the City announced its intention to renovate and improve Fountain Square, including Veterans’ Plaza, Sherman Avenue between Church and Davis streets, and adjacent landscape areas. A fountain and veterans’ memorial would anchor the plaza.

Between August 2014 and July 2015, Teska Associates led a visioning process, asking the public to reimagine the site. Teska presented a slightly revised version of the favorite plan in June 2016. Work began in April 2017.

The plaza, due for completion in May 2018, features a 12-foot-high, 35-foot-long glass wall that will glow at night. Etched into the wall and visible in daylight will be the names of Evanston soldiers who died in war.

South of the wall will be a zero-depth fountain with five rows of water jets. The jets, flush with the pavement, can be turned off to offer more standing room at large public events or adjusted to different heights, and synchronized to music or colored lights.

A few think the latest plan betrays the trustees’ 1876 pledge. They say Fountain Square needs a “fantastic fountain,” not a “water feature.” But Fountain Square has always been more than a watering hole. While endlessly endeavoring to find the square’s more perfect form, Evanston gathers there to greet the great (General MacArthur, President Theodore Roosevelt), honor heroes (fallen soldiers), dishonor foes (burning the German Kaiser and Japanese emperor in effigy at war’s end), proclaim solidarity (with Muslims), protest injustice, and pray for peace. Fountain Square is Evanston’s heart. 

Victoria Scott is an editor and writer for the RoundTable.