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Van Cortlandt Park

Algernon Sydney Sullivan Fountain

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This ornamental horse trough and drinking fountain honors jurist Algernon Sydney Sullivan (1826–1887). It is adjacent to the Van Cortlandt Park Golf House and Lake, and was dedicated in 1906.

Sullivan was raised in the southern Indiana River town of Madison. He attended Hanover College in Indiana and Miami University in Ohio. He returned to Madison to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1849. Sullivan moved up river to Cincinnati, and established a law firm. He married in 1851, but his wife died that year. He subsequently married Mary Mildred Hammond, though the early years of their marriage were racked by financial strife, as Sullivan contended with large debts incurred during the economic turmoil of the Panic of 1856.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Sullivan had moved to New York, and established a law office on William Street, near Wall Street. Though opposed to slavery and the southern cause, he defended in court the crew of the Savannah, a captured Confederate privateer. Arguing that they be accorded proper treatment as prisoners of war, Sullivan was vilified, and then imprisoned by the Federal government. Strenuous objections from prominent members of the bar and the bench won his release after six weeks, and Sullivan successfully negotiated the exchange of the Savannah’s crew.

A member of the reform wing of the Democratic Party, Sullivan helped lead the fight against the corrupt Tweed Ring, who notoriously controlled municipal government and patronage during the 1860s and early 1870s. He was made an assistant district attorney in 1870, and served with distinction for three years. In 1875 Sullivan became public administrator of New York, a position he held for ten years, which was responsible for the administration of estates. His public service during this era caused supporters to urge him to run for mayor, but he declined.

In 1873 Sullivan organized the firm of Sullivan, Kobbe & Fowler, an immediate success, in large part due to Sullivan’s legal reputation and his connections to industrial leaders. In 1879, he and one of the firm’s partners, William Nelson Cromwell (1854–1948), reorganized the firm under a new name, Sullivan & Cromwell. Though the business prospered, Sullivan dedicated much of his effort to providing free legal services to the poor, and did not himself amass great personal wealth. He continued an active public life while serving as senior partner until his death on December 4, 1887. With more than 350 attorneys, Sullivan and Cromwell is one of the most prestigious laws firms in the financial district and in the United States today.

The American Bar Association said of Sullivan that the law “was his life work and his life love as well . . . adversary and client alike felt the power of his lucid, conscientious, wise advice . . . it is fair to say that no lawyer, however great his fame, was regarded by the bench with greater confidence and esteem.” An Algernon Sydney Sullivan Memorial Committee formed and raised funds of $6,000 to commission a commemorative fountain. Frank Wallis, designer of the 1937 bathing pavilions at Riis Park, was the fountain’s architect.

The monument consists of a ten-foot high granite stele with ornamental pediments, basins on either side, as well as circular bronze relief portraits of Sullivan. These medallions were created by Jonathan Scott Hartley (1845–1912) who also crafted the statue of Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, which stands at the north end of Battery Park, and the sculpture of Alfred the Great on the New York State Appellate Building, opposite Madison Square Park.

Prior to a restoration from 2001-2003, the monument had been repaired on several occasions. In 1934 missing bronze letters from the dedicatory inscription were recast. In 1949, all the remaining letters were removed, and the inscriptions were etched into the stone. Later the fountain ceased to function for decades, and the basins were filled with concrete. In 2001 and 2002, with support from Sullivan & Cromwell, Parks’ Citywide Monuments Conservation Program conserved and regilded the reliefs, rebuilt the fountain, cleaned and repointed all the masonry and decoration. This work was done in conjunction with a City-funded capital renovation of the lake and the adjacent landscape, completed in 2003.

Updated Apr 12, 2007 

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