Civic Virtue: Fountain as Social Movement

By October 21, 2013blog
Civic Virtue in its new setting at The Green-Wood Cemetery, October 2013; the original fountain base, as designed by architect Thomas Hastings, remains in Queens

In connection with the recent completion of our design for the new setting of Frederick MacMonnies’ controversial statue Civic Virtue as relocated to & restored by the Green-Wood Cemetery (marble restoration by Kreilick Conservation) from its forlorn condition in Queens, we learned a fascinating 19th century social movement: Temperance Fountains.

Civic Virtue in its new setting at The Green-Wood Cemetery, October 2013; the original fountain base, as designed by architect Thomas Hastings, remains in QueensCivic Virtue in its new setting at The Green-Wood Cemetery, October 2013; the original fountain base, as designed by architect Thomas Hastings, remains in Queens.

A neglected Civic Virtue atop its fountain base, Queens, October 2012A neglected Civic Virtue atop its fountain base, Queens, October 2012

Temperance Fountains were an ill-fated effort to persuade men against entering saloons by slaking their thirst with fresh water, deployed by the (sinisterly naive) 19th Century forces that grew after the Civil War to bring us the Prohibition of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Temperance fountain in Tompkins Square Park, gift of Henry Cogswell to the Moderation Society in 1891, photo courtesy of Famous AnklesTemperance fountain in Tompkins Square Park, gift of Henry Cogswell to the Moderation Society in 1891, photo courtesy of Famous Ankles.

Angelina Crane, the posthumous patron of Civic Virtue, willed upon her death in 1891 the enormous sum of $50,000 ($1.3m in today’s dollars) to NYC for the erection of a “drinking fountain”; for temperance or horses, is not clear.

Civic Virtue as originally installed at City Hall in the 1920s. Some drinking fountain: note the parched onlooker against the rail, both man & beast kept from slaking their thirst by fencing and lawn (photo courtesy Public Design Commission)Civic Virtue as originally installed at City Hall in the 1920s. Some drinking fountain: note the parched onlooker against the rail, both man & beast kept from slaking their thirst by fencing and lawn (photo courtesy Public Design Commission).

It took thirty years for her gift to be turned to marble by MacMonnies, and the result, an arrogant nude man standing amid the entanglements of sirens & pelagic creatures, is anything but temperate…

A horse drinks at a public fountain, the provision of which was the direct result of activism by Henry Bergh and the ASPCAA horse drinks at a public fountain, the provision of which was the direct result of activism by Henry Bergh and the ASPCA.

But it is critical to remember: the Temperance Movement, with all its faults, was enmeshed with a remarkable tide of mid to late 19th century American social emancipation efforts, including Abolition, Women’s Suffrage, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The legacy of these efforts grace our lives in untold ways, and despite its conflicted imagery, Civic Virtue stands as another physical totem of these remarkable movements that began in New York City, with something as simple as a drink of water.