Restoring a campus landmark

Chances are you’ve walked past Cooley Memorial Fountain on Ingalls Mall many times without thinking about what goes into taking care of an outdoor fountain. Not so for the maintenance teams who keep it running.

Completed in 1940 and repaired various times over the years, the fountain was showing its age. Water was leaking into the vault below, the bronze sculptures were weathered, and several fountain features were no longer functioning properly. Based on the conditions, U-M decided to comprehensively restore the fountain.

The restoration goals included:

  • Restore the bronze sculpture to reflect the artist’s original intent
  • Repair the plumbing system and concrete
  • Install waterproofing and safety upgrades
  • Improve future serviceability of the fountain

The project team started off with archival research to better understand the original intent of the sculptor, Carl Milles. The team learned that the fish surrounding the large central statue had been moved and modified sometime in the 1990s. Pinpointing the original sheen and color proved more difficult. After comparing a micro-analysis of the existing finish with historic photos and similar sculptures by the artist, they determined the finish was originally a lighter, oil-rubbed bronze with a dull sheen.

While an art conservator restored the bronze sculptures, the project team turned its attention to redesigning the plumbing to improve longevity. For instance, they converted a manual chlorinator to an automated salt water chlorination system to better maintain and protect the plumbing and sculptures.

The project won a Preservation Gem Award from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

Architect Michelle Smay found restoring this historic fountain “exciting and challenging.” Michelle said, “We all had to work together to achieve the desired outcome, a restoration project that thousands of students will proudly walk past on their educational quest at the University of Michigan.”