Scott Fountain

A mean-spirited practical joke – that was what people thought upon hearing that a memorial fountain was to be built for James Scott, a millionaire of Detroit. Its construction, including its first planning stage, was filled with controversy. Even before it was completely installed, there were a lot of people going against the Scott fountain. Why? Simply because James Scott was known not for being a respectable citizen, but for being a playboy who often played practical jokes, told dirty jokes, drank, gambled, feuded with neighbors, and consorted with many loose women. He was a wealthy man who had very few friends.

James Scott was a real estate spectator and developer in Detroit. He earned fortune in his line of work. But despite his abundance in finance and material belongings, he lacked in dear acquaintances. Knowing that he would have millions left by the time of his death, he stated in his last will and testament that he would give all his fortune to the city of Detroit. However, this good deed came with a condition. He declared in his will that all his wealth would go to the city and may be used for erecting a public fountain provided that a life-size statue of him would be built in it.

This raised a lot of objection among the citizens of Detroit, and was thought to be one of Scott’s practical jokes. But despite the controversy, executors of his will carried on what Scott wanted. They appointed four architects regarded to be the best in their field, one of whom was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted. They were tasked to supervise a competition to pick out the best possible designer of the fountain. Cass Gilbert, a well known New York architect won the contest in 1914. Then, Gilbert was given the task to select the sculptor of Scott’s life-size statue. He chose Herbert Adams.

As the controversy on building the fountain continued, Scotts’ estate also continued on appreciating its value. More than $1 million was raised by the time the fountain was started. The money was used in purchasing another 1,000 yards to the West end of Belle Isle, a space that was perceived to be necessary in accommodating Scott Fountain.

The fountain was completed in 1925 and in it, a statue of an impeccably attired James Scott pensively watches the calming water, sharing his welcoming lap to children and adults who would like to view the same perspective he has. At the back of his sculpture, a text reads


“For the enjoyment of the people and for the adornment of his native city,
James Scott bequeathed to Detroit his fortune
to be used in the construction of this fountain.
From the good deed of one comes benefit to many.”


His memorial fountain, and of course James Scott himself, is quite popular among public art book authors. In a book written by Dennis Nawaroski, James Scott is described as “shady, eccentric and controversial” while Hawkins Ferry, a scholar who wrote about Detroit’s architecture described him as “vindictive, scurrilous, and misanthrope”.