Thursday, May 19, 2011

Henry Cogswell's 1891 Temperance Fountain -- Tompkins Square Park

Henry Cogswell's fountain barely survived public opinion -- photo Beyond My Ken
Henry D. Cogswell had a rough start. Born in Connecticut in 1820, he worked in cotton mills in Connecticut and Rhode Island, spent time in the poorhouse, and wandered from place to place looking for temporary work. Finally, having educated himself, he achieved the position of principal of the Orwell High School in Orwell, New York and became a dentist.

Along with thousands of other young men with the glint of gold dust in their eyes, Cogswell traveled to San Francisco with the outbreak of the California Gold Rush of 1849.  But rather than pan for gold he set up a lucrative dental practice and tinkered with real estate. The combination of the two earned him a fortune of about $2 million within a period of about seven years.

Cogswell retired and set out to put his money towards public good. After founding the Cogswell Polytechnic Institute, he focused on the popular temperance movement.

Beginning around the time of the Civil War, alcohol was blamed for a raft of social ills including domestic violence, poverty and immorality. Around the nation groups like the American Temperance Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union cropped up to stamp out the evils of demon liquor. Among their favorite weapons was the temperance fountain.

It was believed that by supplying an abundant supply of healthful, clean water to the working classes, the temptations of alcohol could be thwarted; and Henry Cogswell took a liking to the idea. In 1878 he donated the first of fifty temperance fountains across America. New York would be on the list before long.

On October 15, 1884 Cogswell submitted his plans for an “ice-water fountain” to the Park Commissioners. The New York Times reported that “It will be 24 feet in length, in the form of a pavilion of polished granite and marble, and will be surmounted with an ideal figure of a man extending a cup of water. The water will flow from the mouths of two bronze dolphins.”

Cogswell estimated the cost of his fountain to be around $12,000 and with it came the conditions that the city provide a constant supply of ice to cool the water in the warm months, and that four lamp posts would be installed at the corners.

Because Tompkins Square bordered on New York’s “Little Germany,” Garrett Peck in his 2011 book “Prohibition in Washington D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t” was caused to mull, “You wonder how successful such heavy-handed moralizing was to a community that made beer into America’s favorite alcoholic beverage.”

The former dentist combined his efforts with The Moderation Society; however six years went by in futile attempts to obtain the permit to construct the fountain. Then in June of 1891 the Moderation Society announced the permit had been issued and the site was chosen: the south side of Tompkins Square.

In the meantime, changes had been made to the design. Now, completely fashioned in granite and manufactured in sections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it would measure 20 feet square. The granite canopy would be supported by four 10-foot columns and the surmounting figure would no longer be a man, but Hebe, the Greek water carrier. No longer bronze, the statue would be zinc and the completed fountain would cost the Society $20,000.

The Hebe figure was based on an 1816 marble statue by Danish artist Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Hebe, the Greek water carrier, stands above M. S., the initials of the Moderation Society -- photo by Beyond My Ken
On August 27, 1891 The New York Times quietly mentioned that “The new Granato Gift Fountain presented by the Moderation Society to Tompkins Square has been erected and the water will be turned on this evening.”

Below the statue a bold monogram M.S., for the Moderation Society, was carved and around the sides were the objectives the Society promoted: FAITH, HOPE, CHARITY and TEMPERANCE.

Unfortunately for Cogswell, his fountains and sculptures were not always well-received. The same year that the Tompkins Square fountain was installed, the San Francisco Examiner referred to “some of the horrors that Cogswell has already inflicted on the city” and called the several fountains he had donated “advertisements perpetrated in pig-iron.”

Two years later Boston refused a fountain, calling it “an offense to lovers of art.” Cogswell traveled there to haul it away only to be further insulted by San Francisco. The Times reported on January 14, 1894 that “His fountain at the junction of California and Market Streets was crowned by a full-length statue of the fountain-giver philanthropist until the close of the last year. On the first of the new year certain citizens found no better way of relieving the exuberance of their spirits, or of attesting their dislike of the statue as a work lacking art, than to hitch a rope about the neck of the good doctor’s image and pull it to the ground.”

Although the newspaper decried the vandalism, only three months later in an article titled “Weeding Out Bad Sculpture,” it summarily declared “The Cogswell fountains are first to go.”
Working class and poor residents take advantage of Tompkins Square Park prior to World War I -- photo Library of Congress
The Temperance Fountain in Tompkins Square survived the flush of bad-art public temperament; however sentiment did not turn a kinder face for decades. In 1909 the Art Commission of the City of New York in its Catalogue of the World of Art Belonging to the City of New York said of the fountain “In the center of the pavilion is the stump of a granite column, out of which the water flows.”

By the 1980s Tompkins Square was essentially derelict and its monuments and street furniture were badly abused. Vandals had sawn the hands off Cogwell’s statue of Hebe and the granite was slathered in graffiti.

A 1992 restoration replaced the damaged zinc statue with a more durable bronze replica and the stone was cleaned and restored.

Today the Tompkins Square Temperance Fountain is one of a handful remaining of Henry Cogwell’s original fifty. Rather than being “bad sculpture” or “lacking art,” it stands today as a superb example of Victorian morality presented in stone.

1 comment:

  1. We are looking forward for a replica of Cogswells Temperance Fountain (D.C. Version) to be traveling Washington D.C. during the Cherry Blossom Festival 2012