A Fountain Loved and Hated

Library Mall’s centerpiece has changed with the times and might transform again.

Black and white archival photo of students perched on the edge of the Library Mall fountain

Early critics of Hagenah Fountain dismissed it as a “piddling puddle” and a “$17,000 bird bath.” UW Archives

The heart of a university is often a green gathering space bounded by stately buildings. UW–Madison’s closest version of a classical quad is Library Mall, nestled between Memorial Library and the Wisconsin Historical Society. And at the center of Library Mall sits Hagenah Fountain. Some might say it’s an underwhelming centerpiece.

Yes, that shallow, 30-foot pool with a small, mushroom-shaped feature has a name. William Hagenah 1903, LLB1905 donated $16,500 to its construction in 1958 to commemorate the completion of Memorial Library and the first block of the lower campus mall plan. The corporate executive and former director of the UW Foundation took a leading role in campus planning, frustrated by the lack of consideration for aesthetic value.

State architect Roger Kirchhoff, who also designed Memorial Library, gave the fountain some fine touches: the outer ring cut from red Minnesota granite, the bronze central feature sculpted with an intricate leaf pattern. The mosaic tiling at the bottom was once impressive but now looks like a dated bathroom floor. Hagenah himself wrote the inscription that spans the ring’s interior: “Teachers and books are the springs from which flow the waters of knowledge.”

On June 14, 1958, UW president E. B. Fred dedicated Hagenah Fountain to “the tranquility of flowing water.” But flowing was an overstatement. The spout produced a light sprinkle from just eight or nine jets.

“The large crowds gazed at it with mixed emotions,” the Daily Cardinal reported of the unveiling. “Some were indignant, some puzzled, some amused.” Critics dismissed it as a “piddling puddle” and a “$17,000 birdbath.”

The UW soon replaced the measly spigot with a more robust metal ring. The water pattern has evolved several more times, including an upgrade in 2006 that retired the ring in favor of a spout like the original. Starting in 2007, construction projects shut down Hagenah Fountain for a full decade.

The fountain has become a fixture of student life. On its first day of operation, pranksters poured in a can of detergent to create the world’s biggest bubble bath. The second day, students held an impromptu swim meet. The third day, a student dumped in goldfish. The following decade, Vietnam War protesters employed it as an eye-washing station to treat tear gas. Generations of students since have waded in its waters and tossed in a penny for a wish.

But will the fountain be a destination for much longer? The university recently released a feasibility study on the future redevelopment of Library Mall. And up for discussion is Hagenah Fountain, which may be rebuilt and modernized to address plumbing issues or come back in a different form altogether. According to Gary Brown ’84, director of campus planning and landscape architecture: “The university is clearly interested in perpetuating the Hagenah commemoration somehow.”

Published in the Spring 2022 issue


  • Anne Wolfson, L&S, BA '80 April 15, 2022

    Hagenah Fountain (thanks for that info – I always called it the Library Mall Fountain) was a hive of activity at the first UW Toga Party in the fall of 1978, held in honor of the release of “Animal House” a few months before. Many, many people plunged into the fountain on that chilly fall evening. I watched in astonishment, noting that none of them had brought towels with which to dry off.

  • BadgerSailorGail April 15, 2022

    Keep a fountain. Period.

  • George Bednar April 16, 2022

    The Eiffel Tower was hated by the French; “an eyesore”, “hideous”. The only thing which saved they Eiffel Tower was that it made an excellent radio tower in 1938. Love the fountain. It’s iconic. I grew up with it the fountain. Every day a saw it at the UW, it was like saying hello to an old friend. The simple design was leagues ahead of that typical for the late 1950’s.

  • Josh Berger April 17, 2022

    It’s cool to have a fountain. But mostly it was ignored, never turned heads. ’78-’82. Don’t need a Trevi Fountain as in Rome, but maybe some adornment in the middle. A bronze sculpture of something or somebody. (Yeah, not Bucky, even tho we love him.)

  • Tom Turner April 22, 2022

    Some things are simply too iconic to mess with and the fountain and surrounding Library Mall are exactly that.

    LIke Bascom Hall and the Memorial Union, the Hill and Lincoln statue, the Red Gym and Camp Randall, the Dairy Barn and Picnic Point, plus many others, these sites are too timeless and meaningful to replace or significantly modify. And their continuing preservation is a sign of respect, tradition and love.

  • Susan (Nicolai) Roemer, BS '70 April 30, 2022

    The Library Mall Fountain (which we called it in the late 1960’s) is very meaningful to my family– all UW grads. (By the way, I do believe there were a number panty raid and toga parties at the fountain 1966-68). When we visit the UW campus, the Mall is one place we enjoy spending time and taking pictures. In recent years it has been a big disappointment to find the fountain closed. What makes UW so special is all the historical landmarks — Bascom Hall/Hill, Lincoln statue, Agriculture Hall, the Dairy Barn, Henry Mall, Red Gym, Memorial Union, Carillon Tower on Observatory Drive, Camp Randall Stadium, North and South Halls. These landmarks must remain to remind us where our University started and to honor all the scholars who have contributed to the world with their UW education.

  • Peter C Christianson May 30, 2022

    Keep it! It’s tradition!

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