TEMPERANCE FOUNTAINS, East Village and Washington

by Kevin Walsh

The Tompkins Square Temperance Monument, erected in 1891, was a gift from a San Francisco dentist and temperance activist, Henry Cogswell (1820-1900). His successful practice, and fortunate real estate investments, allowed him to retire at age 36, having amassed a fortune of $2 million…perhaps Bezos or Bloomberg money if he lived today. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, temperance movements in which people gave up drinking were prevalent (enough so that the US Congress adopted Prohibition from 1919 to 1932, and Russia, Iceland, Norway, Hungary and Finland adopted similar laws in the same time period). Cogswell became a philanthopist with his chief interest being prohibiting liquor consumption, and so sponsored this monument and fountain. The goddess on the top is the little-known Hebe (pronounced AY-bay) the gods’ cupbearer on Mount Olympus, and one of Heracles (or Hercules’) many ‘conquests.’ The statue was originally forged by Jordan Mott Works, the iron works that gave Mott Haven, Bronx, its name; this is a bronze replica installed in a 1992 renovation.

Unbelievably it’s been many years since I last visited Washington, DC in December of 2007. I scuttled past the Capitol dome, Library of Congress, Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial and I never miss the Lincoln Memorial at night when it’s at its most moving. I liked riding the Metro and its unusual stone arched stations, and Georgetown with its brick sidewalks and unused trolley tracks. Me being me, I noticed the similarity of its lampposts and fire alarms to New York’s. I also noticed oddities, like this Temperance Fountain at Pennsylvania and Indiana Avenues at 7th Street. It greatly resembled the Tompkins Square monument.

There is a good reason for that: Cogswell is responsible for this one, too:

Cogswell’s most lasting legacy was the 50 monuments he sponsored nationwide between 1878 and the 1890s. Most were versions of the temperance fountain. Several of the fountains, such as those in Washington, D. C., Boston Common, and in Tompkins Square Park, were covered by a stone canopy or baldachin supported by four Doric columns. As can be seen here, the four stone entablatures were emblazoned with the words Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance. [NYC Parks]

There are subtle differences; note the heron on top, replacing Hebe, and the pedestal is occupied by a pair of intertwined, scaled dolphins; it’s empty in Tompkins Square Park. Why the water animals? Symbolism. Water used to be dispensed from a well in the base of the fountains, to encourage people to drink fresh water instead of liquor. In the 19th Century, pure water was relatively hard to find and many people slaked their thirst with liquor.

Other Cogswell fountains in Buffalo, Rochester, San Francisco, and Pawtucket, RI have been torn down. Surviving examples are in San Francisco and Rockville, CT.

The handsome building in the rear is the Firemen’s Insurance Building, its long-missing gilded dome restored some years ago.

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”


1 comment

dcjuggler February 20, 2019 - 3:54 pm

A late friend of mine used to take visitors on his personal “Statue Tour of Washington.” The Temperance Fountain was always the first stop. And yes, we would all have a drink and give a toast to temperance before we continued on.


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