After completion of the elegant City Hall building in 1812, the large triangle of land in front of it was used only partially as a public park. The city's first art museum, a circular building called The Rotunda was built here six years later and various other structures came and went.
With the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 that brought the city’s water supply from upstate, a large fountain was installed in the park which spewed water 50 feet in the air. It was here that public meetings concerning the outbreak of the Mexican American War in 1846 were held, where Civil War recruitment drives were administered in 1862, and where barracks housed Civil War troops waiting to march off.
After the war, in 1867, the city erected a post office on the southern tip and razed the Rotunda in 1870. The next year Jacob Mould was commissioned to design a new fountain. Mould, who would become chief architect of New York City Parks, was busy at the time co-designing elements of Central Park with Calvert Vaux.
His creation, which replaced the original 1842 fountain, was a Victorian extravaganza worthy of its position in front of City Hall. A granite and bronze central column sat within a great 30-foot square granite basin. The main basin spilled into four semi-circular pools at its sides. Four ornate gas-lit “candelabra” anchored the corners and a gilt finials surmounted both the column and the lamps.
The park and Mould’s fountain were an enticement to tourists and New Yorkers alike. Throughout the 1870s people crowded into the park for free concerts.
After World War I, however, civic taste turned from ornate Victorian designs to heroic allegorical monuments. Jacob Mould’s fountain was disassembled in 1920 and shipped to Crotona Park in the Bronx. Two years later an extremely controversial fountain by Frederick William MacMonnies was installed. The sculptural grouping, called Civic Virtue, depicted a muscular, nude male holding a sword, stepping over the prone figures of two females. The grouping was little admired by female New Yorkers.
Amid the protests, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had the fountain dismantled and moved to Queens. City Hall Park was without a fountain until 1972 when a new fountain, a gift of philanthropist George T. Delacorte, was installed.
During his second administration, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani became disenchanted with the rag-tag condition of City Hall Park and initiated an all-out renovation and restoration. In 1999 the project, which would cost nearly $35 million, was underway. Pavement, which by now covered the park, was ripped up and grass and gardens reintroduced. The heavy, cast iron fence was restored and replicated where necessary and plans were made for the Jacob Mould fountain to come home.
What Conservations Solutions, Inc., the firm hired to restore the fountain, found when they inspected it was disheartening at best. The fountain’s years in the Bronx had not been kind. All of the bronze elements had been stolen for their scrap value. Where original carved capstones and copingstones had been taken or lost, blank gray stone blocks had been used as replacements.
When vandals sprayed graffiti on the fountain, it had been covered over by layer after layer of white paint. Carefully, Conservations Solutions removed the white paint and the underlying graffiti without damaging the original surviving finishes. All missing granite, bronze and ceramic elements were reproduced using Mould’s original sketches and photographs. Not only were the fountain operations restored to the 1871 plans; the restored lamps burn gas again as they did during those summer concerts 140 years ago.
In 2000, the fountain restoration received the award of Best Park Restoration from the New York City Department of Parks.