Friday, September 13, 2013

The 1936 Sophie Loeb Fountain -- Central Park

photo by Alice Lum
Sophie Irene Simon was born on July 4, 1876 in Russian.   Six years later her family immigrated to the United States.  Unlike so many of the Russian immigrants in the 1880s; rather than remain in New York City the Simons settled in Pennsylvania.

Tragically, Sophie’s father died around 1892, leaving the family with no means of support and Mrs. Simon with six children to feed and clothe.   To help her mother, 16-year old Sophie worked as a clerk in a store owned by Anselm Loeb; all the while continuing her studies.

After graduating high school she taught, and in 1896 at the age of 20 she married her former employer.  Once married she no longer taught school and she focused her attention on writing.  Her poetry and prose caught the attention of the New York Evening World.

Sophie Loeb’s married life would eventually sour and she divorced Anselm Loeb; although she retained her married name.   In 1910 she moved to New York City and took a job as a journalist for the New York Evening World.

Loeb landed in Manhattan at the time when the social reform movement was in full swing.  She wrote human interest articles that turned the spotlight on “destitute mothers” and the plight of impoverished children.    Women who had little or no means of supporting their children found them removed by the City to institutions.  Sophie Loeb firmly believed that financial aid for the mothers was a far better solution.

She quickly became a moving force in social welfare and in 1915 founded the Child Welfare Board of New York.  The Board consisted of nine members, appointed by the Mayor for a term of eight years, who served without compensation.   It was required that at least two of the members be women.

The Board was given the authority “to grant allowances to widowed mothers with children under the age of sixteen years, in order that such children may be cared for in their homes by their mothers instead of being placed in institutions.”  Sophie Loeb went on to found the Child Welfare Board and served as its first president.  She would help establish the first building devoted to child welfare, in 1921, and three years later became president of the Child Welfare Committee of America.

Doggedly determined, she pushed for public baths, subsidized school lunches, housing reform and even the fireproofing of movie theaters.   One of her last campaigns involved the construction of a playground in Central Park.  Multimillionaire and philanthropist August Heckscher, who made his fortune in zinc and iron mining, offered to donate $100,000 for the playground.  When the project became ensnarled in red tape and bickering, Loeb fought passionately for its construction.    The three-acre playground opened greatly through her efforts.

Sophie Irene Loeb --photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Three years after she saw the opening of the Heckscher Playground, Sophie Irene Loeb died on January 18, 1929 at the age of just 53. 

The playground was heavily used and by 1935, although only nine years old, it showed significant wear and tear.   The Park Department laid plans to renovate the facility, relocating apparatus, sodding the ball field, adding croquet courts, playhouses and shade trees.    The Heckscher Foundation took advantage of the renovations to show thanks to Sophie Loeb in the form of a memorial fountain.  The organization pledged $15,000 for the erection of the fountain and on February 20, 1935 The New York Times reported that “Plans filed with the Municipal Art Commission call for the erection of a memorial fountain to Sophie Irene Loeb, writer and social welfare worker.”

Although the renovations to the playground had already received preliminary approval, the newspaper noted that “action on the fountain has been deferred pending further study.”

While officials argued about the proposed memorial, Frederick George Richard Roth went ahead with the design.  Roth was the chief sculptor for the New York Parks Department under the Works Progress Administration at the time.  He was already responsible for the 1925 statue of Balto, the “Dancing Goat” and “Honey Bear” in the Central Park Zoo and would design the popular “Mother Goose” statue in 1938.

The Times reported that “The tentative plan of Frederick Roth, the sculptor, is to build up a series of concentric rings in the centre of which will be a group of figures from Alice in Wonderland facing outward from the fountain itself.  The figures will include Alice herself, the White Rabbit, the Duchess, the Red Queen, the White Knight and the Mad Hatter.”
Roth's design reflected the streamlined style of the times -- photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was dealing with objections from the West Side Boys Association, Inc.    The group’s representatives, Frank Donnelly and William W. Bates, balked at the placing of the fountain between the baseball field and the playground.  After more diplomatic persuasion, Moses finally became frank.  The Times said “he told them, however, that it was being donated by August Heckscher, who gave $100,000 in 1926 to the city for the field, and that he had no intention of moving it.”

The case was closed.

On October 3, 1936 the memorial fountain was unveiled.   The principal speakers at the dedication were Commissioner Moses and August Heckscher himself.   Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Loeb “a most remarkable women—the most unselfish woman that I have ever met who was active in public affairs.”  He went on to described her “successful, though protracted, fight for child welfare legislation.”  He told the crowd that he had learned "my scorn for politicians" through her.
photo by Alice Lum
The completed memorial consisted of a 10-ton granite "pediment" within a pink granite bowl.  Around the bowl were five drinking fountains for the children Sophie Loeb had spent most of her life defending.  “The pediment is carved with groups representing the famous characters in ‘Alice in Wonderland,” and the King, the Queen, the Duchess, the Mad hatter, Father William, the Pig Baby and the Frog Butler, and, of course, Alice, gaze down upon spouting water flowing from the mouths of minor Alice characters into the large bowl,” said The Times.

The base of the pediment was engraved with Sophie Loeb quotations and an inscription:

“In Memory of Sophie Irene Loeb, Lover of Children—A Home for Every Child.”
Around the base of the sculpture were quotations by Loeb -- photo by Alice Lum

The Parks Department paid for the granite steps, landscaping and plumbing, fencing and the flagstone steps surrounding the monument.
photo by Alice Lum
In 1987 the fountain was moved to the Levin Playground by the Central Park Conservancy.  The drinking fountains were removed and the bowl refitted as a water feature with cooling sprays that delight children in the summer.
photo by Alice Lum

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