New home for Annie Stewart fountain? – Isthmus

The Annie Stewart Fountain, Madison’s oldest commissioned public art, could soon find a new home in Greenbush’s redeveloped Neighborhood House Community Center. 

“What better than to put Madison’s first piece of public art in Madison’s first community center,” Samuel Brown, president of the board of the Neighborhood House, said at a June 25 neighborhood Zoom meeting on the fate of the fountain. “We thought this might be an interesting solution to a problem that has vexed the city for a number of decades.”

But not everybody is yet on board. 

“It seems like the offer on the table is basically Neighborhood House would get the piece,” Karin Wolf, city of Madison arts administrator, tells Isthmus. “This needs to be a city-wide decision,” adds Wolf, who has long wanted to see the fountain restored. “It needs to have a fair process,” she says, so that a city asset is not removed without broad public input.

A 2023 Conservation/Preservation report recommended the fountain be moved indoors from its current location, once the entrance to the Henry Vilas Zoo on Madison’s west side. The report also concluded that only the upper marble portion of the fountain — the statue— could be conserved, with the base and foundation beyond repair. Given that recommendation, it is likely only the marble sculpture would be restored and moved to an interior location.

Brown, who owns Fabiola’s Spaghetti House and Deli, and Leopold’s, says that after he learned the fountain was decaying outside and needed to be moved inside, he began thinking about how the fountain could become the focal point of the exhibit space at the Neighborhood House, which will be building a new center at its current location at 29 S. Mills St. 

“What a fantastic confluence of circumstances,” says Brown in an interview. “We’re building a facility that we want to tell the history of the neighborhood and we’re simultaneously hearing that this fantastic piece of public art is looking for a permanent home. It just felt right.”

Wolf worries if the fountain is moved temporarily or given to the Neighborhood House it will set a precedent for other pieces of public art. She adds that other nonprofits have not had a chance to vie for the piece.

“This is important because [the Annie Stewart Fountain] was created to memorialize a woman who reportedly struggled with mental health issues,” says Wolf. “Embracing that is pretty remarkable for the time that it was built — early 20th century. I would like to see the city take care of its assets and honor this piece that honors a woman who died and had mental health issues.”

The Stewart family gifted the statue to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association in memory of Annie, who died of suicide in 1905, according to a city recap of efforts around the fountain in recent years.

About 15 people attended the June 25 Zoom meeting to discuss the fate of the fountain. Most of the attendees, including members of the Annie Stewart Working Group and Neighborhood House board, pushed for the move to Neighborhood House.

The Neighborhood House is set to undergo a $29 million remodel in 2025. The new building will feature a community center on the first story, four stories of affordable housing units above, and an exhibit space, which is where the Annie Stewart Fountain would be displayed. How much of the fountain would be moved, or how long the fountain would be hosted at the Neighborhood House are open questions. 

Brown says because there will be a significant cost to invest in the infrastructure and installation of the fountain, he wants to see it housed at the center for a long period of time or indefinitely. 

“We’d need to come up with something, a longer-term solution for the sculpture,” says Brown. “I don’t think temporary housing is acceptable.”

He declined to comment on the specific plans for restoration, but says it is Neighborhood House’s goal to see the sculpture cleaned, restored and honored in a place of significance.

Jim Lorman was married underneath the fountain in 1981. He now serves as a co-facilitator of the Annie Stewart Working Group, an informal group of Madisonians interested in the future of the fountain. 

 Over the last four years the group has met more than five times to discuss the fountain’s future.

“There are a lot of people who are very excited about this opportunity,” says Lorman. “To me, the Neighborhood House is an answer to our prayers.” 

The fountain and Neighborhood House both have ties with the Greenbush neighborhood. Annie Stewart was one of the founders of Attic Angels, a group of Madison women who sewed clothing for poor Madison families in the late 1800s. Brown says Attic Angels was one of the first funders of the Neighborhood House back in the early 1900s, raising money and supplies for the settlement house that served the Greenbush neighborhood. 

“We have such a long historical presence in Greenbush as the first community center in Madison, and that’s the first public piece of art — both based in Greenbush,” says Laura Gundlach-Heiman, the executive director of Neighborhood House.

There has been widespread interest in the fate of the fountain — a 2023 community survey developed to gauge interest in the fountain by the Annie Stewart Working Group and Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio received 1,393 responses from 64 zip codes. 

Despite some concern about relocating a piece of public art to a private nonprofit, Lorman and Brown say the Neighborhood House is heavily sponsored by the city and open to the public. 

As the Zoom meeting wrapped up after more than an hour of discussion, Ald. Tag Evers requested Madison Arts Commission and city staff create a resolution to move the statue to Neighborhood House. The resolution would be brought before the Madison Arts Commission and the Common Council. Wolf says it would then most likely be referred to the Board of Park Commissioners and to the Madison Arts Commission. 

Wolf says she won’t oppose the resolution. “My job is to do what’s best, according to the people,” she says, noting she does have to investigate the laws governing the disposition of city property. “There’s rules about how you get rid of city property and how you loan it out to others, and I have to find those rules out.” 

Wolf says the public can still weigh in on the future of the fountain at “No decisions have been made,” she adds, noting that the June 25 was “just one attempt at decision-making. The priority is getting the work conserved and keeping it public.”

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