As reported in Detroit Moxie, Detroit’s coolest attractive nuisance has returned. After a warmer-than-usual December and early January, winter temperatures have finally arrived in the city, giving us cause to be optimistic regarding the remainder of the ice tree season. Over the past week kids and adults alike have been seen having a great time climbing on, skating around, spelunking within pine-scented grottos of, and generally admiring and being inspired by our great city’s grandest, coldest, slipperiest, jaggedest, and probably most dangerous public art installation.
The winter of 2011 was a very sad time on Belle Isle, when the tipi-like structure of discarded tree parts was erected, but the water supply to the installation was never turned on. According to Belle Isle Manager Keith Flournoy, cold weather froze and damaged the pipes before the structure could be completed. “We had no idea how beloved that tree was until last year, when it was gone,” Mr. Flournoy said in an interview, citing numerous telephone inquires park staff received from ice tree admirers. According to Mr. Flournoy, downed pine trees are delivered to the island by the Recreation Department’s Forestry Division. They are then stacked by park staff against a permanent steel skeleton which includes the plumbing necessary to sprinkle water onto the trees from above.
While Mr. Flournoy admits that the ice tree has been around longer than the memory of his most senior crew members, its history goes back even further into Detroit’s past than one might imagine. At least a far back as the winter of 1933, when a photograph in the February 26 issue of the Detroit News shows the island’s ice tree looking much as it does today. Except, the News gave the tree the now-charmingly anachronistic name “Rock Candy mountain.”
Although it is not certain if the Belle Isle ice tree existed prior to the 1930s, it may have been inspired by another, perhaps earlier Detroit ice fountain located right downtown! The Washington Boulevard ice fountain, although similar to the Belle Isle ice tree in outward appearance, was not based on the same platform of pine-tree construction.
According to a January 12, 1904 article in the Detroit Journal, this “leaning tower of rough and glistening ice” was formed by a pressurized jet of water which spouted forth from below. This Washington Boulevard version, however, was no less magnificent than its Belle Isle successor.
Are these big, majestic ice fountains a uniquely Detroit phenomenon? A quick location-neutral web search suggests that they are. While a duckduckgo.com query for terms such as “ice fountain” and “ice tree” reveals images and descriptions of frozen fountains around the world, most of these appear to be small, regular fountains that were accidentally or intentionally left running during the winter to freeze. None approach the magnificent scale (or duckduckgo search ranking) of either the Belle Isle ice tree or its predecessor, the Washington Boulevard ice fountain.
Thus the origins of Detroit’s century-old ice fountain tradition remain as much a mystery as the identity of a poet by the name of Frank Houser, who in published an ode to what might have been the first iteration of the Washington Boulevard ice fountain. A 1904 print, located at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection, depicts a photograph of the multi-tiered ice fountain surrounded by these words:
Thou radiant, scintillant, crystalline mass,
As pure as the snowflake, as transparent as glass!
Thou are wrought by a hand of infinite skill,
Whose hammer is silent, whose chisel is still!
O! thou art the rarest of rare winter wonders!
The soft fleecy cloud dissevers and sunders
Its brilliancy mists, to allow thee to rise,
Away from the white earth to kiss the soft skies.
Where are the nymphs who were wont to lave,
And hide-and-go-seek in grotto and cave?
They have hid them away, where Aeolian winds sing,
And are gracing the palace of the hoary Frost King.
Thine icicles shimmer like boreal light;
The snow that enmantles is faultless and white;
Thy wimples and dimples excel the blue sea!
Thou magic of sculpture! Thou enchantest me!
In a world where an obsession with safety is giving us public spaces that are becoming increasingly boring (especially where children might be involved!) it is refreshing to know that at least one city is providing its citizens with something that is as truly scary to climb on as it is beautiful to behold.
[Thanks to Lori Feret, historian and former board member of Friends of Belle Isle, for pointing me in the direction of the Burton Historical Collection’s historic ice tree photographs.]