Fountain Blues

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June 25, 2002 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Ben Berger wanted to give Minneapolis a fountain, but the public art generated public uproar. Three decades later, the dandelion fountain is fizzling.

When first conceived in 1969, the fountain in Loring Park was touted by Ben Berger as "the finest fountain that scientists, architects or engineers can devise."

Today, the Berger Fountain (the one at Yale Place and Willow Street that looks like a large dandelion) is ailing. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lacks the roughly $200,000 needed for an overhaul. It is also cutting the fountain's operations to less than four months this year to save $10,000 a month on electricity, water and repairs.

Three decades ago, that fountain -- a freebie from Park Board member Berger -- was the epicenter of a heated community debate over its artistic merit, its location and even the Park Board's decision to accept such a gift. If you listen for the tiny reverberations of that argument, history utters a faint "I told you so."

"Is it proper for the Park Board to accept a gift from one of its own members when considerably more money will have to be raised from the public to support and maintain the gift?" asked an early-'70s flyer from the Hennepin-Lowry Hill Council.

The story of the Berger Fountain is the story of a young Polish immigrant boy who grew to become a very rich man and wanted to give a gift of a fountain to the city.

It is a story of the powerful Walker Art Center blocking what its leader viewed as a "motel" fountain from landing in its front yard --to preserve undeveloped land that would, years later, become the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

It is the story of how a "free" fountain carries long-term costs.

Who was Ben Berger?

Berger immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1913 at 16 and started working as a vendor on the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad on the Minneapolis to Chicago run, according to his biography.

According to published reports, Berger rose to own the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team, the Minneapolis Millers hockey team, Schiek's Caf and a string of movie theaters. He founded and served as first president of Amicus, an organization helping prisoners and ex-convicts.

He also served on the Park Board.

For the purposes of this story, Berger was a fountain fan. During his travels, he saw a fountain in Sydney, Australia called "El Alemein." Built in 1961, that fountain commemorates the Australian Army\'s role in the World War II siege of Tobruk, Libya and the and the battle of El Alamein in Egypt.

"My dad fell in love with it," recalled Lawrence (Bob) Berger, Ben Berger's only son. His dad got the designer to make one for Minneapolis.

Berger announced his gift in August 1969. That month, Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan gushed over the fountain's plans -- saying it would even flow in winter.

"Water will shoot 35 feet into the air around a 20-foot tall sculpture," she wrote. "Surrounding it will be three smaller fountains. All will be illuminated and change colors with the seasons. In winter, steam vapors will create unusual ice formations around the sculpture as the ice melts and more steam is added."

Choosing a site for this marvel proved contentious.

Land flap

Berger said in his biography that he refrained from any discussions on the fountain\'s location. "I'm just an innocent bystander," he said. "All I wanted to do was give a fountain to the city. I never dreamed there would be objections."

Mary Goldberg of Edina, Berger's niece by marriage, recalled "Uncle Ben" very much wanted the fountain in the space in front of the Walker.

That was the site the Park Board chose.

The Walker and Guthrie said no.

Martin Friedman, the Walker's director at the time, dismissed the fountain as commercial art -- "a ball on a stick."

He said it would be out of place in front of the art center.

"It wasn't designed by an artist with the land in mind," Friedman was quoted as saying. "It was designed for a busy urban site. It's sort of mass produced and doesn't grow out of this land. They're in front of motels all over."

A space in transition

At the time, the land in front of the Walker had gone through a long evolution, and was being eyed as a new art space.

In the early 1900s, the National Guard Armory and formal gardens occupied the area that is now the Sculpture Garden. The armory was torn down in 1933, but the gardens remained in the Park Board's care.

In the late 1960s, I-94 cut the connection between Loring Park and the garden. The area in front of the Walker became a playing field.

Roger Hale, who chaired the parks committee of the Hennepin-Lowry Hill Council (a group of homeowners, business owners, schools, churches and cultural institutions), said that Friedman realized that space would be ideal for a magnificent sculpture garden. Hale said Friedman wanted to resist other development.

"He could see what the possibilities were. He knew if the Berger Fountain were there it would mess up those bigger possibilities," Hale said.

Leaders of the Hennepin-Lowry Hill Council asked people to lobby the Park Board to reverse its decision.

"The placement of the fountain did not evolve out of a well-conceived land use plan," a letter from the group said. "Rather, it is a direct result of the bitter political power struggle on the Park Board which has plagued the city for the past several years."

The debate peaked in April 1973, three-plus years after Berger announced the gift. An exasperated Berger, then 77, was quoted in the Minneapolis Tribune saying he didn't care where the Park Board built the fountain, "but (he) would like to see it installed while he is still alive."

Bowing to pressure, the Park Board voted that month to put the fountain in Loring Nicollet Development District. Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar assessed the aftermath of the debate.

"Not all of the hospital reports are in yet, so it cannot be determined whether there has been actual bloodshed," he wrote. "The fountain, after all, has yet to launch its first spout. As an agent of civic harmony it ranks right with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915."

The Park Board finally dedicated the fountain in its current location in August 1975.

The cost, estimated at roughly $100,000 in 1969, had risen to $242,000.

Changing fortunes

Friedman's vision of the Sculpture Garden would become reality in 1988, 15 years after the stormy fountain debate.

"There was a big hassle and controversy for a year or two," Hale said. "It was worth fighting for, frankly. It was a win-win situation. The Berger Fountain ended up in the right place. We ended up with a world-class urban sculpture garden."

However, the Berger Fountain faces a lose-lose on capital and operating costs. To save money, the Park Board turned the fountain on just before Memorial Day, and will shut it off shortly after Labor Day, said Schmidt.

Goldberg, Berger's niece, said she walked by the fountain this spring. "I felt sad it was not spouting water. I thought they were just cleaning it," she said.

The Park Board has replaced the Berger Fountain's mechanical system at least once -- and the brass rods that spray the water at least twice, Schmidt said. It cost roughly $12,000 for the last rod replacement, roughly 4 years ago.

The big problem now is the block base is deteriorating, and it affects the flow of the water through the fountain, he said.

Designers originally had discussed using granite to create the base, with its small waterfalls and pools, he said. When the bids came in, the Park Board couldn't afford granite, so it bought brick instead.

"Damage occurred early on in the freeze-thaw cycle," Schmidt said. "Skateboarding and in-line skating has accelerated the deterioration process."

The brick decay causes circulation problems, he said. It affects the depth of the pool and how fast the water returns to the intake area. As brick breaks off, the water cycles back faster that the fountain's pump can handle.

The Park Board cannot afford an engineering study -- estimated at $20,000 -- to figure repair costs, let alone fund the repairs themselves, Schmidt said. The guestimate is around $200,000.

The Park Board will try to find the money.

Paula Vesely, president of the Loring Way Condo Association, said the Berger Fountain is a landmark and "to allow it to deteriorate further is a tragic mistake."

"It is one of the features of Loring Park the city has always considered a jewel," she said. "There are tour buses that drive by and pause there. Lots of kids play in it. In the summer, people who are getting married get photographed in the park with the fountain in the background."

Citizens for a Loring Park Community board member Diane Woelm has started raising funds to help pay for repairs.

For more information call her at 377-7752 or Citizens for a Loring Park Community at 874-9002.