A Fountain Loved and Hated
Library Mall’s centerpiece has changed with the times and might transform again.
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