Retrospective: Swan Song

The Story of the Roney Fountain
Writer: 
January 31, 2010
Waterworks: Roney fountain in the 1920s.

Waterworks: Roney fountain in the 1920s. Duke University Archives

Hiding among the magnolias alongside the East Duke Building on East Campus is one of our early school landmarks: the Roney Fountain. Few who see it in its current nonfunctioning state would guess that it has ties to the Duke family and was the centerpiece of campus in the early twentieth century.

The ornate, multi-tiered fountain, topped by a metal swan that spouted water out of the end of its beak, was installed in 1901, a gift from Anne Roney, Washington Duke's sister-in-law. After Duke's second wife, Artelia, died of typhoid in 1858, her sister, Anne, helped with his four children, including Benjamin and James. She also served as housekeeper for Fairview, the house Washington Duke built in the mid-1880s after his business became a success.

The fountain was originally part of a garden that included the statue of Washington Duke seated in his armchair and marked the entrance to the Washington Duke Building, which stood roughly where the East Duke Building is today.

After the Washington Duke Building burned down in 1911, the statue of Duke was moved to its current location, and the area around the Roney Fountain became known as the Roney Garden.

Upperclassmen in the 1920s used the fountain for hazing freshmen; it was not uncommon to see references to a "paddle in the fountain" in the Chanticleer.

By the early 1930s, the fountain's water feature had stopped working and its crowning swan had rusted away. In 1933, Ruth Addoms, a professor in the botany department, led a restoration project, turning the basin of the Roney Fountain into a lily pond, with cattails around the perimeter. The remains of the metal structure were converted into a bird bath.