With the restoration of another iconic fountain underway, Kansas City is burnishing its reputation as a city that cares about public art, cultural diversity and its “City of Fountains” bragging rights.
The “Spirit of Freedom Fountain,” located at Cleveland Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard on the city’s historically neglected East Side, was taken down for a long-needed fix-up after a removal ceremony on Dec. 8. Following a restoration expected to cost $865,000, the fountain is expected to be back in service by this summer.
Metro residents may not be as familiar with the “Spirit of Freedom Fountain” as they are with the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza or the Seahorse Fountain at Meyer Circle and Ward Parkway. But the “Spirit of Freedom Fountain” has earned bragging rights all its own. It was created by Richard Hunt, an African American sculptor from Chicago who is known for his public sculptures throughout the country.
Hunt is a “very important contemporary sculptor,” said Jan Schall, curator of modern art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She described the “Spirit of Freedom Fountain” as “kind of an explosion of exuberance. It’s a very liberating kind of sculpture, as it rises up with the water splashing about. It’s never static, it’s always moving.”
Besides its beauty and vitality, Schall said, “Spirit of Freedom” signifies “our city’s commitment, not just to the grand old beautiful fountains of the past, but to continuing to energize the process of bringing art into the public space.”
The idea for the “Spirit of Freedom Fountain” initially bubbled in the mind of Bruce R. Watkins, one of the city’s first African American City Council members. Watkins organized the Spirit of Freedom Foundation in 1977 to develop a monument to the contributions of African Americans in Kansas City. The fountain was dedicated on Sept. 13, 1981, exactly one year after Watkins’ death.
“At a time when America is struggling anew to recognize racial disparity, renewing and maintaining the ‘Spirit of Freedom Fountain’ is especially important,” said Pat O’Neill, president of the City of Fountains Foundation. “It serves as a tangible reminder of the many significant contributions of African Americans to the social, cultural and business vitality of our city.”
Mark McHenry, director of Kansas City’s Parks and Recreation Department, said “Spirit of Freedom” had deteriorated to the point where it was totally inoperable. “Thirty-six years is a pretty long time for a fountain.”
Public fountains started flowing in Kansas City more than 100 years ago, starting out as watering places for horses, or ponds where people sailed small boats and practiced their fly fishing techniques, O’Neill said.
The city’s parks system is home to 48 fountains. “Everybody probably has their favorite fountain out there somewhere, because of their beauty, and moving water is inspirational in its own way,” McHenry said.
Kansas Citians Harold and Peggy Rice, working with the Parks and Recreation Department, established the City of Fountains Foundation in 1973 to encourage the establishment, maintenance and long-term endowment of the city’s signature fountains.
The Great Recession and related city budget cuts took a toll on the fountains, O’Neill said. To make up the shortfall, the City of Fountains Foundation in 2013 launched the “Wish Upon a Fountain” fundraiser.
“We set out to raise a couple of million dollars and identified eight (a ninth was added later) fountains that were in dire need of help,” O’Neill said. “Ultimately we raised almost $4 million.”
The fundraising effort got a boost from images of the city’s fountains that were featured in 2014 – 2015 TV broadcasts of the Kansas City Royals playing in the World Series, O’Neill said.
Money raised by the foundation played a crucial role in restoring fountains such as the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain and the Seahorse Fountain.
Besides restoring beauty and operability to the fountains, renovations boost efficiency. “Today’s pumps can be monitored and regulated from your iPhone,” O’Neill said. “Problems can be identified more quickly. LED is not only safer but it’s more beautiful. New electrical components and new plumbing fixtures and the alloys they use bear up under the weather better and longer.”
Most of the money for the “Spirit of Freedom Fountain” restoration is coming from the city, and O’Neill sees that as a positive trend. For example, he said, the foundation has raised about $150,000 for reconstruction or replacement of the Westside Fountain, located at Southwest Boulevard and Summit Street, but much more funding is needed for that project.
“We’ve kind of tapped everybody out,” O’Neill said. “The economy is better, tax revenues are higher, and we’re looking to the city to renew its responsibility for these fountains.”
Above: Eminent African American sculptor Richard Hunt’s “Spirit of Freedom Fountain,” installed in 1981 at Cleveland Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard, has been temporarily removed for restoration work. It is expected to be reinstalled this summer. (photo by Brady Cramer)