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The statue of Benjamin Franklin, formerly on the U-M campus

Ben Franklin's Visit to Michigan

A student's beer bottle was his statue's undoing.

by Frederick W. Mayer

From the December, 2015 issue

For approximately thirty years in the second half of the nineteenth century the famous American statesman Benjamin Franklin was a fixture on the University of Michigan campus--albeit a sculptural fixture. He was a gift of the Class of 1870. The statue was placed on the west side of campus at the junction of the sidewalks leading to old Haven Hall (the Law School) and old Mason Hall, facing in toward campus. Ben's jacket and breeches were frequently to be found painted in the university's colors of maize and blue.

Although the Class of 1870 thought they had purchased a bronze sculpture, it was in fact made of pewter. In 1899 a student shoved a beer bottle into Ben's "pocket," creating a hole in the hollow statue. In order to prevent further deterioration, the Plant Department drilled a hole in Ben's head and filled the statue with cement. But as winter approached, the cement froze and expanded, causing one of Ben's arms to fall off. Further damage of this sort being unavoidable, the statue was taken down and placed on a shelf in the old boiler room. Plant personnel felt that Ben should be kept safe somewhere in case members of the Class of 1870 returned to campus looking for it.

Indeed, an alumnus did search for Ben on a return visit to Ann Arbor in 1900 and found him perched in the boiler room. The alumnus reported on Ben's demise to a former classmate:

A ghastly fracture of his personality, in the region of his seventh cervical vertebrae, caused his premature demise at the age of 25, and all the efforts of the University surgeons and copious applications of Portland cement were unavailing, and he now stands shorn of his perennial coat (and pants) of yellow and blue paint, alone and unnoticed. It is rumored that marauding Boxer students were responsible for his assassination.
Marauding students ("Boxer" was a joking allusion to China's Boxer Rebellion the same year) weren't the
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end of Ben's troubles. In the spring of 1907, the statue fell off the shelf and broke into dozens of pieces. His remains were piled onto a cart and given an ignominious burial in the infamous "Cat-Hole" (a depression filled with murky water which was formerly located south of the Central Power Plant). Thus ended Dr. Franklin's something less than glorious tenure at the University of Michigan.

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The Benjamin Franklin statue was the second major freestanding work of public art erected on the Michigan campus, after the Professors' Monument--a broken column near the Graduate Library that commemorates four of the university's earliest faculty members. Although the Franklin work no longer exists, these two works mark the beginning of an impressive collection of outdoor public art that graces today's Michigan campus.

Over fifty such works are now located throughout the entire campus, from the football stadium at the southwest to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens at the northeast. (For a comprehensive guide, see public-art.umich.edu/the_collection.) The collection includes early works such as Carlton Angell's Pumas in front of the Ruthven Museums, the Carl Milles fountain on the Ingalls Mall in front of the Michigan League, and Marshall Fredericks' American Eagle at the southwest entrance to Michigan Stadium. But the majority of the pieces have been installed since the late 1960s, when the placement of Bernard Rosenthal's Cube in the Regents Plaza began an ongoing flow of new works that provide both intellectual stimulation and visual excitement to the campus.

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Mayer was the U-M's University Planner from 1968-2003. This is an excerpt from his new book, A Setting for Excellence: The Story of the Planning and Development of the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan.     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2015.]

 

 
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