Belle Isle's fountain to undergo upgrades
A tour of the James Scott Memorial Fountain's pump station on Belle Isle as the Grand Prix announced a of $400,000 grant from the 2018 Grand Prixmiere fundraiser. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
Detroit — Fixing leaky and broken pipes and repairing the marble stairs of Belle Isle Park's most iconic landmark are some of the updates planned from donations gathered during this year's Detroit Grand Prix, officials said Tuesday.
To the background music of rushing water from the James Scott Memorial Fountain, representatives of the Downtown Detroit Partnership's Detroit Grand Prix granted a giant check on Tuesday for $400,000 to Robert Carpenter, the unofficial "fountain fixer."
The money comes from the $1 million raised for the Belle Isle Conservancy at the PwC Grand Prixmiere gala in June. It will go toward keeping the 93-year-old fountain well-maintained and running for the four million who annually enjoy the most-visited park in Michigan.
“I got cold sweats,” said Carpenter, a DTE Energy Co. engineer, when he heard of the donation. “It’s going to be an outstanding start to make sure the fountain still runs. ... We want this to last another 100 years."
Completed in 1925 for an estimated $500,000 ($6.2 million today), the fountain was a memorial to real-estate investor and socialite James Scott. In his will, Scott left money for a fountain to the city of Detroit, with the caveat that it must include a life-size statue of him. Despite protests, the city built the fountain along with a statue of Scott seated off to the side, overlooking the fountain, with Detroit in the background.
More than 90 years later, the fountain is in much need of repairs, Carpenter said, despite some updates in the 1980s and '90s. He plans to start renovations this fall after the fountain closes on Sept. 23. He will fix the mortar joints that have left growing gaps in the fountain's steps before the winter can make them worse.
Also on his to-do list is hiring a contractor to paint the main fountain bowl next summer and replacing sealant that no longer holds the water, causing algae to grow and water to leak.
Much of the work he hopes to get done with the donations, however, will go unnoticed by visitors. The money will go toward reinforcing cracks at the bottom of 14-feet deep tanks at the bottom of the fountain's lower cascades as well as replacing old and damaged lighting in the fountain's underground operations. Carpenter hopes to complete the updates in a year.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources also is in the middle of its own upgrades. For $175,000, it is adding a concrete wheelchair-accessible ramp to the feature.
Sarah Earley, chairwoman of the Belle Isle Conservancy, said the fountain represents treasured moments for many visitors — from first communions to weddings.
"Everybody has a memory," Earley said. "For the years that it was turned off, those memories have not been created for that generation. This helps so that future generations will."
The fountain shut down for more than a decade until 2007 when the Grand Prix moved to Belle Isle. At that time, Carpenter was asked to "clean up" the fountain, which he interpreted as to fix it up.
With the hydraulic prints lost, Carpenter relied on trial and error to get the fountain working again. Now he spends six to eight weeks ahead of the Grand Prix with a few DTE interns preparing the fountain for its summer showcase. It starts flowing again on the Friday of the racing event's weekend.
"The fountain is what held the event together," said Michael Simcoe, General Motors Co.'s vice president of global design and the chair of the 2018 PwC Grand Prixmiere. "As designers, we recognize passion, and we recognize beauty. To combine the two is great."
That's why the fountain became the inspiration behind the Chevy Dual in Detroit INDYCAR Grand Prix race trophies this year, and it worked as a backdrop for winners taking photos at the victory podium.
Still, Carpenter said he has a list of more than 80 items that need fixes on the fountain, from major gaps in the marble to adding liners in old pipes that will protect them from leaking in the future. In total, the updates could cost millions.
'"It's woefully outdated," Earley said. "This is a positive and auspicious beginning, but there's more to come."
For those interested in contributing to the future health of the fountain, the Belle Isle Conservancy said Tuesday people can now text "fountain" to (313) 349-2933 to donate to the improvements. Normal text message rates may apply.
For five years, the Grand Prixmiere has raised more than $4 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy. Most of that, Ersley said has gone toward reopening and operating the island's free-of-charge aquarium.
It's the fountain, however, that people want to see first, said Karis Floyd, Belle Isle's park and recreation manager with the state natural resources department.
"If it isn't running, I get calls," he said. "It's the first stop visitors make, and that's great to see."