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Fountains In Our Town –  Henry Wollman Bloch Fountain

Henry Wollman Bloch was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in July 1922. He was the son of Hortense Bienenstok Bloch and Leon Bloch. Henry and his brothers, Leon and Richard, were great-grandsons of Betty Kohn Wollman and Jonas Wollman, who was a prominent merchant in Leavenworth, Kansas, during the latter half of the 19th century. It is worth noting that the Wollman Rink in Central Park in New York City was built with funds donated by one of Betty and Jonas Wollman’s children.  

Henry attended Southwest High School and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1944. He distinguished himself in service in the Army Air Corps toward the end of World War II. Family was important to him. After the war, he worked first with his older brother, Leon, in the bookkeeping business. After Leon left, his younger brother, Richard, joined Henry in the company.

The 1950s marked the start of several new enterprises in Henry’s life. In June 1951, he married Marion Helzberg. In January 1955, Henry and Richard created a new company focusing on tax preparation, H&R Block. The business was a success, both nationally and internationally. Richard received a devastating diagnosis in 1978: terminal cancer. A few years later, when he had been treated and survived, he left the firm in order to focus on helping others battle the disease.          

In 1974, the brothers established the H&R Block Foundation, which focuses on philanthropy. When Henry was preparing to retire from the board of H&R Block, the directors of the Foundation wanted to find an appropriate present. “We definitely weren’t going to give him a gift only he would enjoy,” Morton Sosland told the Kansas City Star, adding, “No gold pen, no watches for Henry.” Instead, they came up with an inspired offering: a fountain at Pershing Road and Main Street, directly in front of Union Station. In addition, the Henry W. Bloch Scholars program was created in his honor.

WET Design, a firm based in Los Angeles, California, and best known for the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada, was tapped for the project, along with local entities BNIM Architects and J. E. Dunn Construction Company. The fountain is the property of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, but Union Station Kansas City takes care of maintenance.

The dedication was originally scheduled for September 12, 2001. After the terrorist acts of September 11th, the event was postponed until September 25th. At the gathering, Henry chose to speak not of his career, but of a place dear to his heart. According to the Star, he said, “I owe a great debt to Kansas City, a city that has been good to me and my family.”

Claire Kahn Tuttle, the designer of the fountain, gave the Star her thoughts at the dedication, “It was important to create a work with a kind of dignity that hopefully would last for many years and would feel right in that space,” she said adding, “It’s a modern form, it’s not a derivative form. But it has a simplicity and purity about it.” 

The website for the City of Fountains Foundation provides this description of the fountain:

It features 232 jets arranged in three concentric rings within an ellipse of black granite. A thin sheen of water on the flat granite creates a large mirror to reflect the historical and monumental architecture on either side of the fountain. A computer choreographs an ever-changing pattern of display. On each hour and half-hour, a five minute ‘high show’ presents a celebration of water in movement.

From the beginning, people loved the fountain. After learning of the air strike by the United States on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, one young mother’s reaction was to take her daughter to see the fountain: the three-year-old was delighted, and it is possible that listening to the water brought a sense of calm to her mother, as well. For many visitors, the drama of it was also a factor. As the Star noted: “The Bloch Fountain produces distinct pops of air when it shoots its long-range missiles of water – some as high as 60 feet. A sheen of water covers the 102-by-146 foot oval black granite face of the fountain. At night, the oval reflects both Union Station and the Liberty Memorial.”

April 1st was Fountain Day in 2002. Henry used a ceremonial wheel to turn on the fountain, assisted by children from Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Hours for the fountain were planned for 18 hours per day, from six a.m. to midnight until fall.

One ongoing concern was keeping people (and their dogs) out of the fountain. Writing in the Star in August 2002, Barbara Shelly said: “It’s as mesmerizing as a fireworks display. And like fireworks, it’s meant to be viewed at a distance. Look, but don’t touch.” Her next comment was, “Yeah. Lots of luck.” By then, stones had been placed around the fountain’s wall with the idea of preventing people from standing on the wall and climbing into the pool, damaging the fountain and its powerful jets. Not everyone was pleased with this. “Fountains belong to the people,” one disgruntled visitor said. 

The fountain underwent renovations in 2007. It was resealed, and some of the stonework was replaced. At that time, Duane Erickson, the chief engineer for Union Station, estimated that 500 work hours had gone into readying the fountain during the week prior to the first day of its operation that year. He also told the Star that it generally required 30 hours of work each week during the season to keep it flowing properly.

In June 2013, the fountain was the anchor feature of the KC Festival of the Fountains. A fundraiser held by the City of Fountains Foundation, which was celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Festival included a Ride the Fountains bicycle tour, trolley tours to several fountains, a ceremony highlighting the foundation’s history and fundraising efforts, and a performance by the Marching Cobras.

The spring of 2016 brought improvements to the fountain and the area around it, which were paid for by the Marion and Henry Bloch Foundation. In May, for the first time in almost 60 years, there were streetcars in downtown Kansas City. Where was the first departure on the first day? That’s right – Union Station. In June 2016, the fountain gained a companion piece just across the street: a 500-pound clock dating from the 1880s, previously located near the front of Union Station. The clock had been damaged during a winter storm the previous year. Following major renovations, a rededication ceremony for the fountain was held at the end of June, and the clock was unveiled that day.

Henry Wollman Bloch died on April 23, 2019 at the age of 96. The Henry Wollman Bloch Fountain is a tribute to a man who helped simplify life for legions of taxpayers and who remained devoted to his hometown, as is documented by his many generous acts and services throughout his life.

For further reading: 

Acknowledgment: With special thanks to Ann McFerrin, Archivist at Kansas City Missouri Parks and Recreation, for research and editorial assistance. 

Also featured in the September 5, 2020 issue of The Independent
Photo credit: Bradley Cramer
By Heather N. Paxton 

 

 

 

Heather N. Paxton

Heather N. Paxton’s name first appeared in The Independent in a birth announcement back in — oh, never mind. In the mid-1990s, Heather joined the staff as a replacement for a friend who was expecting a visit from the stork. (Let’s hope Heather sent a baby present. The boy is a college graduate now.) Her 20s, 30s, 40s, and now her 50s: Heather has been a staff member for at least brief periods in all of these decades. She is most at home in the office when she is perusing the archives.

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Bailey Pianalto Photography

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