by Ellen L. Puerzer
For some time now the history of the Soldiers Home Fountain has been a mystery. It’s been rumored that the fountain fi gures with the grecian lady holding an urn used to stand on Courthouse Square in front of the 2nd Courthouse (now Cathedral Square). I hope to lay that rumor to rest.
Courthouse Square was the fenced park surrounding the first 1849 courthouse at Jefferson and Wells. The 2nd courthouse, a grand classical red sandstone structure, was constructed in 1870 to replace the crumbling courthouse/jail. The center of the newly landscaped park grounds featured an 18-foot stone fountain unveiled in August
1877, with dancing sprays flowing over two decorative bowls, beguilingly held aloft by Grecian Maidens.(1) This replaced an earlier fountain (1875-1877) which was moved to the 2nd Ward park. (2)
A. The 2nd courthouse and its fountain circa 1890s
Water nymphs with flutes, perched on the larger of the two cast iron bowls, and the bottom of the fountain was supported by a cluster of winged cherubs. It was designed by Hennecke and Co. (3) In 1882, a lovely wrought iron railing was added with flower-filled urns on each pedestal at the corners of the twelve-sided base.(4) It was a very popular subject of postcards.
B. The fountain in Courthouse Square
The fountain in Courthouse Square is similar to the one standing in Soldiers' Home outside of Old Main. It is not, however, the same fountain. The 1878 VA annual report lists $1303.02 going for the construction of a new fountain. Further information was located in the Milwaukee Sentinel
. It states many artisans started working on the fountain for the Soldiers' Home grounds on June 14, 1878. Casper Hennecke and Co. furnished and placed the fountain on July 9, 1878.(5)
This was the same Hennecke who a year earlier built the Courthouse Fountain. A German immigrant who lived in Milwaukee, he supplied art work, statuary and fountains from the mid to late 1800s to the city and its residents until his death in 1892. The creation of the new fountain for the Soldiers' Home coincided with the 1878 street name change from Elizabeth Street to National Avenue. Instead of two bowls like the courthouse fountain, the one in front of Old Main, had a single bowl. Yet the same (or extremely similar) grecian-style lady was its centerpiece with water sprouting from the top of her urn. Like the Courthouse Square fountain, there were three robed ladies beneath the bowl.
C. A postcard of the Soldiers' Home Fountain
It was this similarity that must have started the rumor they were one and the same.
Greg Filardo’s book on Milwaukee Postcards also mentions the fountain came from Courthouse Square, possibly basing this on the similarity in photographs and not on any documented source. Note the difference in water dispersion between the two fountains. (Illustrations A and C.) The courthouse fountain was much more elaborate. Also, its base was larger than that of the Soldiers Home Fountain.It had twelve sides, while the Home fountain was an octagonal basin. The top bowls are similar but have
their differences. Hennecke also provided a fountain for the 8th Ward Park in 1885 with basin diameter of 40 feet and 23 feet high — exactly 5 feet higher than the
courthouse park fountain. And in the 1880s, he created a fountain to replace the one in 2nd Ward Park.(6)
Casper Hennecke moved to Milwaukee in 1865 and ran a successful business on Buffalo St. until his death in 1892. He was a renowned citizen and benefactor to the German- English Academy as well as the Wisconsin Humane Society which he is credited with starting. His company produced classic statuary for home as well as public use and was considered the largest in the country. Around 1890, he opened a second store in Chicago. Two of his catalogs can be found at the Milwaukee Central Library.
Before the advent of Milwaukee’s park system, two places were popularized by Milwaukeans for use as “green space” activities such as picnics, strolling and
other popular Victorian social pursuits — Courthouse Square and the Soldiers' Home grounds. It’s quite a coincidence they should have such similar fountains.
Flanked by two cannons, the Soldiers Home fountain was also a popular subject of
D. A soldier pauses in a 1911 postcard.
The 1881 and 1889 Soldiers Home Souvenir booklets showed pictures of the fountain. And an October 1886 Milwaukee Sentinel
article mentioned how the beautiful VA grounds appealed to visitors.
Simultaneously, a newspaper recorded the popularity of the Courthouse Square fountain and its attractions in the late 1880’s: live alligators. On a sunny day, you could go to the Square’s fountain and watch alligators sunning themselves. Ultimately, as they grew in size, officials had them removed.(7)
Replacement of the red courthouse was already being discussed by early 1900s. Within fi ve years of construction, the second courthouse had a leaky dome, poor gutter system and a myriad of other troubles. Despite it’s marble-laden interior and the beautiful exterior, building a third courthouse became the city’s aim. By 1929, the current courthouse was constructed, abandoning courthouse square for 9th
In 1936, the courthouse fountain was removed (8) but the original concrete basin and urns were left behind on the courthouse grounds. The basin and urns stayed there in derelict condition until 1939 when the abandoned courthouse was razed. Many photographs document the destruction of this regal building which took 4 months. This author has been unable to track down what happened to the fountain figures themselves.
By 1934, the fountain enclosure at the VA grounds underwent a drastic remodeling using a lannon type stone for the basin. A seating area was then constructed creating an overall, modern look. Only Hennecke’s metal fi gures and bowl were retained from the initial fountain. (9)
E. The rebuilt fountain of 1934
By 1960, the two cannons had been removed and donated to Stone’s River National Battlefi eld at Mufreesboro, Tennessee, again altering the impact of the beautiful fountain. More recent publications and articles designate the Soldiers' Home Fountain as the oldest operating fountain in the city.9 How fortunate that in 2001 the fountain underwent a complete restoration, including the removal of thirty-seven layers of paint. It was rededicated at the Reclaiming Our Heritage event in 2003. The ground surrounding the fountain is paved with commemorative bricks.
All the other victorian fountains crafted by Hennecke and Co. in Milwaukee are gone, including the stunning example in courthouse Square. But the one in front of old Main has stood for 127 years and will continue to remind us of the craftsmen who helped beautify our city in the 19th century.
Copyright 2005, Ellen L Puerzer. Used with permission.
1. “ Fountain unveiled,” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 18, 1877.
2. Milwaukee Sentinel, May 25, 1875.
3. “ Hennecke &Co awarded fountain contract,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 26, 1877.
4. “ Iron enclosure,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 21, 1882.
5. “ Hennecke placed fountain,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 14, 1878, and July 9, 1878.
6. “ The 2nd Ward Fountain,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November, 22, 1885.
7. “ Alligators in Fountain,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 29, 1890.
8. History of the VA Center, Wood.