Union Square Park

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Union Square Drinking Fountain


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

Located in an alcove on the west side of the park, this ornamental fountain is one of the oldest in the city's parks. Consisting of a bronze statuary group atop a granite stepped pedestal, it was crafted by German sculptor Karl Adolph Donndorf (1835–1916), and donated by philanthropist Daniel Willis James (1832–1907) to promote public health as well as the virtue of charity.

With completion of the Croton Reservoir aqueduct in 1842, New York City became the beneficiary of a consistent supply of fresh water, its citizens previously having relied upon (often contaminated) well water.  This advance in public health was the cause of great celebration, marked by fountains erected soon after in City Hall Park and Union Square.  By the late 19th century, numerous outdoor decorative drinking fountains had been erected throughout the city for the benefit of "man and beast".  Few survived to modern times, and the James Fountain, with its lavish sculptural detailing, is one of the finer examples still extant.     

This fountain was conceived by its donor Willis and businessman and philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt Sr. They retained the services of Professor J. Leonard Corning of Morristown, New Jersey to assist in identifying an appropriate sculptor to realize the project whose goal, in Corning's words at the dedication, was "the threefold intent of contributing to the physical comfort of the people, and at the same time teaching a lesson of religion and cultivating a healthy appreciation of art."

In 1877 they selected Donndorf, newly installed as the head of the sculpture department in the Art Academy of Stuttgart, Germany.  Donndorf also completed statuary on the massive Luther reformation monument in the German city of Worms, after the death of its designer and his mentor, Ernst Riestchel, and is responsible for many other public statues in Germany, such as those of Bach and Goethe in Carlsbad. For the fountain in Union Square he created a figural grouping with biblical associations, in which a mother holds an infant and a water pitcher, as a small boy stands at her side.  The sculptor's own family modeled for the tableau.  On the four sides are bronze lions heads that serve as water spouts, and there are additional sculptural flourishes depicting butterflies and salamanders.  At one time metal cups were chained to the piece to permit passersby to quench their thirst.  The elaborate granite base is of pink granite quarried in Sweden.

The project dragged on as the sculptor labored "to execute a work which for truth to nature and conscientious attention to detail, should be as fit for a museum as for a public park." A new model for the infant was enlisted, as the original baby had outgrown his role.  In the winter of 1879-80, the sculptor suffered a severe setback when his almost completed full sized clay model collapsed due to a severe frost. He recreated his original, and at long last the bronze was cast at G. Howaldt Foundry in Brunswick and the fountain delivered overseas.

On October 25, 1881 the James Fountain was dedicated in elaborate ceremonies in Union Square Park, which included speeches by Professor Corning, the donor James, Parks Commissioner Smith E. Lane and Mayor William R. Grace, whose addresses repeatedly touched upon the message of bounty, kindness, love and beneficence that the sculpture was meant to convey.  In 2002 the fountain was renovated as part of the reconstruction of Union Square Park, and despite the many changes wrought in the square and the city at large since its creation, remains a comforting presence that continues to fulfill its mission of beautification and public enrichment.

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Union Square Drinking Fountain Details

  • Location: Westside of park, between 15th and 16th Streets
  • Sculptor: Karl Adolph Dondorff
  • Architect: J. Leonard Corning
  • Description: Group of three figures---standing mother holds baby on right arm with infant at her left side---(over life-size) on an ornamented, octagonal pedestal with a lion head fountain and a basin on each of four sides; formerly a working drinking fountain
  • Materials: Group---bronze; Pedestal---Swedish red granite (polished)
  • Dimensions: Total H: 19' W: 7'6" D: 12'
  • Cast: 1881
  • Dedicated: October 25, 1881
  • Foundry: G. Howaldt, Braunschweig
  • Donor: Daniel Willis James and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.

Please note, the NAME field includes a primary designation as well as alternate namingsoften in common or popular usage. The DEDICATED field refers to the most recent dedication, most often, butnot necessarily the original dedication date. If the monument did not have a formal dedication, the yearlisted reflects the date of installation.

For more information, please contact Art & Antiquities at (212) 360-8163

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