Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The 1912 Josephine Shaw Lowell Fountain -- Bryant Park

photo by Elissa Desani

Josephine Shaw’s life should have been one of refinement and comfort.  Born into a wealthy Massachusetts family, she had lived both in France and Italy.  Her parents urged her and her four siblings to study and to become participate in their communities.  In 1853 the Shaws built a lavish mansion on Staten Island where the air, it was felt, would be beneficial to “Effie’s” health.

It was bad timing that dashed Josephine Shaw’s future as a happy wife.  When she married railroad executive Charles Russell Lowell III in 1863 the Civil War had been raging for two years.  Unlike most well-to-do wives, when her husband was called into military service, Josephine refused to leave his side.  She followed his division, aiding wounded soldiers at the front. 

Josephine and Charles Russell Lowell III in 1863 -- The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell, 1911 (copyright expired)

On October 19, 1864, a year into their marriage, Josephine was eight-months pregnant.  Yet she stayed on with the Union Army and her husband, now in Virginia.  That morning Lowell was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek.  His wounds were such that General Sheridan ordered that he be promoted to brigadier general that day.  On October 20 he died at the age of 29.

The 21-year old widow and mother-to-be returned to Staten Island.  Josephine focused on the rearing of her daughter, Carlotta Russell Lowell, born a month later.  But as the child reached her teen years, Josephine turned her attentions to righting what she perceived as the wrongs of society.

In 1876 Governor Samuel Tilden appointed Josephine a Commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities; the first female to sit on the board.  Her indefatigable work would go far beyond “charity,” and would address social injustice as well.

By the following year she was a member of the “Board of Visitors”—an independent watchdog organization with the goal of finding and reporting irregularities in social agencies.  In March 1877 she and two other members, Theodore R. Roosevelt and Henry L. Hoguet, were sued by the Juvenile Guardian Society after they found “mismanagement of the society’s funds.”  The Society ran lodging houses for orphans and indigent children.

The Society’s attorney, William Ware Peck, complained that the Board of Visitors had “no legal right to examine into its affairs.”  In addition, “Mr. Peck thinks that the recent investigation by the Board of Visitors was a one-sided, inquisitional affair, and that the society was given no opportunity for defense.  One of the visitors, he said, had openly avowed his intention of crushing the society.”

The three defendants were ordered on March 10 to refrain from “publishing any false, defamatory, or libelious [sic] statements against the society, its affairs, or the conduct of its officers” pending their showing the judge evidence.

On April 2 Josephine was back in court with Roosevelt and Hoguet and they were armed with facts and figures.  Most of the funds of the New-York Juvenile Guardian Society, they claimed, went to its secretary and former superintendent, D. F. Robertson.

The Society’s treasurer testified that of $2,000 collected in 11 months only $490 went to the poor, “the rest being expended in the payment of old debts, or pretended debts, claimed to be due to Robertson.”

Josephine and her colleagues reported on the private school at No. 101 St. Mark’s Place.  “They found a bare and dirty school-room, with 33 children attending school.  When questioned, the teacher could give no reason why the children should not attend the public school.  There were but two slates for all the children.  The teacher said she had only been engaged in the school since September, at a salary of $5 a week, which was not paid regularly.”

Her victory over the poorly managed Juvenile Guardian Society was just the beginning of Josephine Shaw Lowell’s campaign against inequity.

Her scrutiny fell on both sides of the line, however.  When a bill came before the Legislature to incorporate the Protestant Infant Asylum in 1880, she combed through every line; then protested to the State Board of Charities.  She considered it “loosely drawn” and warned “Under the present system, persons who are able to support their children have them committed to some institution.  The greatest evil of the system,” she told a Times reporter, “was its effect on both parents and children.  The giving of the City’s money was a minor evil, but for parents to foist children upon the public at the most troublesome periods of their lives, and afterward take them back, was demoralizing to both.”

The same year she testified about conditions in the Insane Asylum on Ward’s Island.  She insisted that the staff was underpaid and ill-trained.  “Of the assistant physicians only a few received salaries,” she pointed out.  “There were two who received $500 each, three who were paid $300, and one who received $250.  As a rule, the assistants received only their board…The great faults of attendants were ignorance and want of judgment.”

She told the Senate committee on December 3 that the Asylum had room for 500 insane males, but was housing 1,200.  “Of the 3,029 insane belonging to the City, there was not accommodation for more than 2,000 at the outside in the present institutions.”

Unscrupulous operators of government-funded institutions found it hard to pull the wool over Josephine Shaw Lowell’s ever-vigilant eyes.  In April 1883 The New-York Medical Aid and Relief Society for Destitute Sick Women and Children issued its mandatory annual report.   The report ended saying “The Trustees have much pleasure in referring to the accompanying list of honorary members, who, after fully investigating the merits of this society, indorse and thus commend it to the notice of the benevolent.”  What followed was a who’s-who list of eminent New York physicians like Alexander B. Mott, William T. Mittendorf, Edward Frankel, and John Butler.

Josephine Shaw Lowell issued letters to all 23 doctors on the list “asking what they knew of the society.”  She published the results in a letter to the editor of The New York Times on August 11, 1883.  “With one exception they answered that they knew nothing, and had never authorized the use of their names.”

“I think the above facts are sufficient to prove that the New-York Medical Aid and Relief Society for Destitute Sick Women and Children is totally unworthy of the support or confidence of honest [people],” she concluded.

While Josephine Shaw Lowell toiled for the benefit of the poor; she disapproved of welfare.  She famously said “It is better to save them before they go under, than to spend your life fishing them out afterward.”  Providing dole to the poor, she stressed, discouraged their finding work or elevating their position.

On March 16, 1885 she addressed the Congregational Club regarding Manhattan slums.  “She threw the blame of the present condition of the poor of New-York upon the churches and benevolent societies in the city, “reported The New York Times. “To the lack of judgment shown in the distribution of charity, in her opinion, should be attributed the increase of poverty and its accompanying ills.”

She illustrated her point with an anecdote.  “A poor washerwoman returned to her home one evening, having by hard work, earned a dollar.  A neighbor who did not pretend to work showed her an order for a dollar she had received from a charitable association.  The woman was barely able to live by working hard.  She found she could live as well by not working at all.  Her case is but that of thousands.”

During her speech she reprimanded the authorities for failing to provide parks in the slums for children to play.  She said “a child who lived in Hester-street could scarcely be expected to walk to Central Park for a little open-air amusement.”

Josephine’s scope of work seemed to know no bounds.  She continued to lobby for parks in the wretched slum areas like Mulberry Bend; she recognized the need for female matrons in the jails and prisons; and she walked the streets of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods.  On January 4, 1891 The Sun noted that she had “visited the station houses and seen scenes of depravity and misery which, if decency would permit being printed in detail, would arouse the indignation of all humane people.”

In 1894 she chose to take on another significant opponent—Tammany Hall.  The New-York Tribune reported on October 13 that under her leadership The Woman’s Republican Association “will now take part in the campaign” against the political machine. 

The Josephine Shaw Lowell Fountain is at once simple and powerful -- photo by Elissa Desani

At the same time Josephine was taking note of the growing labor movement.   While she believed that the down-trodden worker needed to unite; she also decried violence in favor of rational negotiation.  On November 16, 1894 The Evening World said “She believes there is no remedy to be found for the workers except organized unity of action, and that labor and capital must combine in adjusting their difficulties.  Boards of conciliation and arbitration will, she thinks, supply the missing link for which we have looked so long.”

When the City proposed establishing what today are called homeless shelters; Josephine Shaw Lowell was quick to react.  While the concept seemed to most to be a humane solution to homelessness; she warned “There is no question that 50,000 ‘homeless’ men could be and would be drawn to this city if even the most miserable provision were made to lodge and feed them; and there is also no question that to make such provision would be one of the most cruel things that could be done for these men themselves, as well as one of the most mischievous for the city.”

She pointed out that the City already ran “the workhouse, established by the city for this very class.”  She argued that the 350 men who slept 26th Street City Lodging House for Homeless Men, they should be sent to the Workhouse “where at least they would be fed, clothes, and made to work.”  She seemed almost cold-hearted when she complained, as well, about the City’s use of the homeless to clear away snow—a program in effect in New York City even today.

“Thus, what the city saves in its Street Cleaning Department it spends in its Charities Department, and its work, instead of being done by men with rent to pay and families to support, is done by homeless paupers.”

photo by Elissa Desani

It was perhaps her own personal loss three decades earlier that prompted Josephine to write what might have been a rather startling letter to the editor of The Times on April 23, 1898.  The Spanish-American War erupted following the bombing of the USS Maine on February 15 that year.  American patriotism ran high and young men enlisted in the military to defend their country’s honor.  Josephine saw no need for married men to rush into battle.

“I write to ask you to encourage the married men of our militia regiments to resist the temptation to volunteer, for their first duty as present is to their wives and children.”  She asked the husbands and fathers to have the “courage to refuse.”  She added “Later, if the country needs them, it will be time enough to sacrifice their wives and children, and it will then be their duty to do it.”

On October 12, 1905, the 62-year old reformer and advocate, died in her home at No. 43 East 64th Street.  The New-York Tribune said of her “Mrs. Lowell was interested in municipal reform, and is said to have been the first woman who raised her voice against Tammany.  She was the leader of the woman’s movement in 1894 which helped to defeat the Tiger.”  The New York Times added “She was always a worker for results, and no ephemeral or unpractical cause could enlist her sympathy.”

The Times mentioned some of the advances she brought about for women.  “She brought about the system of matrons in police stations, and she was a prime mover in obtaining the separation of the sexes in prisons.  Seats behind counters for shop girls were also advocated by her.  Although a believer in woman suffrage, she did not devote herself to that cause as she did to objects which seemed to her to more imperatively demand her support.”

Within a month there was talk about creating a memorial for Josephine Shaw Lowell.  On November 13 a meeting was held the Charities Building to discuss a fitting monument.  Ideas were tossed about, including “a tablet at the entrance to the building” and “a small park on the east side.”

A committee was formed and its decision was a memorial fountain.  Architect Charles A. Platt was commissioned to design the $20,000 fountain.  On January 1, 1910 the trade publication Granite, Marble and Bronze reported on the progress of the project.

Steps lead up to the fountain shortly after installation.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

“The handsome Josephine Shaw Lowell memorial fountain to be erected in New York City is being cut at the yard of Milne & Hector.”  The magazine reported that ten train cars were required to transport the rough pink granite quarried in Stony Creek, Connecticut.  “The bowl of the fountain is 12.6 in diameter and rests on a pedestal which is to be elaborately carved.  Around this pedestal is to be a pool of water, outside of which is a granite walk six feet wide.  The total wide of the pool and walk being something like forty feet.”

On the morning of May 12, 1912, hours before the dedication of the memorial, The Sun wrote “In the course of the last few weeks a fountain of singular simplicity and beauty has been raised in Bryant Park.  All the workmen who were engaged upon it could tell was that it was the Lowell Memorial.”  The newspaper said that “it was generally concluded that it was to the memory of James Russell Lowell,” the American poet.

The newspaper lamented that in only seven years, the public had greatly forgotten Josephine.  “But such was not the case.  It is a monument to the memory of Mrs. Josephine Shaw Lowell, who…spent most of her life serving the poor and other unfortunates.”

At noon 500 spectators took their chairs arranged in a semicircle as a band played.  Former Mayor Seth Low was the principal speaker.  During his address he said “There are few, if any, here who cannot vividly recall this stately woman, as she moved along our streets, clothed always in black, whose countenance of rare nobility was at once comfort and inspiration where it was seen.”  Commissioner Stover remarked on the rare recognition of a woman in New York.

“How like all the world we are in thus neglecting the recognition due to woman. We have erected monuments to her at the rate of one a century, and hidden them in obscure places.”  He pointed out that the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain was only the fourth monument to a women—the other three being tablets.

The Sun said of the fountain “The beauty of the work lies in its simplicity.  What little decoration there is does not obtrude—a fitting memorial to such a life as was that lived by Josephine Shaw Lowell.”
Ice transforms the fountain to sculpture in the winter months.  Embedded in the pavement (below) is the dedication plaque. photos by the author

The unveiling resulted in a sort of cat-fight within the assemblage.  Mrs. Frederick Nathan complained “The idea!  All this talk about Mrs. Lowell’s work, and not a mention of the fact that she was an ardent suffragist!”  She was overheard by Mrs. Gilbert Jones, standing nearby.  “Why, the very idea!  Mrs. Lowell was not a suffragist at all.  Why, she used to come to my husband’s office on business and be treated royally in days when anybody who ever looked like ‘votes for women’ would not be admitted at all.”

The two women began arguing in front of a reporter for the New-York Tribune, each saying she knew Josephine Shaw Lowell very well; and each insisting that she was either a suffragist or an anti.  Finally, said the newspaper, “Then, the two champions of ‘women’s rights’ (the right to vote or not to vote, as one prefers), went their ways to opposite sides of the great fountain and let the cool breezes play on their heated brows.”

The fountain was placed squarely in the center of Bryant Park becoming the focal point of the landscaped sward.   In 1936 it was relocated to the western end of the park, near the 6th Avenue entrance. 

Workers sit around the relocated fountain.  photo by Greville Rickard, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

For over a century, even through the park’s dark days of the 1980s when drug dealers and vagrants took it over, the pink granite fountain has spilled water from the great basin into the surrounding pool.  It remains one of the park’s greatest attractions; although as The Sun recognized was already happening in 1912, the memory of Josephine Shaw Lowell has faded away.


  1. "The fountain was placed squarely in the center of Bryant Park becoming the focal point of the landscaped sward. In 1936 it was relocated to the western end of the park, near the 7th Avenue entrance."

    I think that must be the 6th Avenue entrance as the park is not bordered by 7th Avenue.

    1. Absolutely. A typo that slipped through. Thanks for catching it!

    2. You are welcome. I have a genuine fondness for Bryant Park. For five years in the late 70's and early 80's we had a studio on the 8th floor of 80 West 40th Street overlooking the park (from the the SW corner.) My favorite studio ever. Watching the park daily from above as the seasons changed was truly transporting. As you mentioned those were not great days for the park but from above it was all beauty.

  2. Thank you for the lovely story of Ms. Lowell's life. It's a beautiful fountain, I always enjoy having lunch by it in Bryant Park,