Sunday, April 11, 2010

USA: New York's Schiff Fountain Has Seen Better Days

New York, NY. Schiff fountain in its original position with Brunner's Seward Park Bath Pavilion on left - facing Essex Street. Photo courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

New York, NY. Section drawing of Schiff fountain, probably from the 1930s. Photo courtesy of NYC Dept of Parks/Recreation.

New York, NY. Schiff fountain in the 1980s, still essentially intact. Photo courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

New York, NY. Seward Park. Schiff Fountain in present condition. Photo: S. Gruber 2010.

USA: New York's Schiff Fountain at Seward Park Has Seen Better Days
by Samuel D. Gruber

Turn-of-the-20th-century financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff and American Jewish architect Arnold W. Brunner had a long and productive relationship, especially when it came to designing useful buildings to aid the material and cultural condition of New York City Jews. Brunner designed many charitable and educational structures funded all or in part by Schiff, and many of these were on the Lower East Side. Brunner especially made a mark on the small area around Rutgers Square located between Seward Park and the The (former) Forward Building.

One of the earliest Brunner-Schiff collaborations was the five-story Educational Alliance, built in 1891 (Brunner and Tryon, architects), and still in use. In 1904 Brunner designed the Bath Pavilion for Seward Park, but this was replaced in the 1930s.

In 1894, Schiff and Brunner collaborated again when the philanthropist donated a fountain to the city to be installed at Rutgers Square. The city voted to accept the gift in November 1894. The Board of Aldermen voted to connect the fountain in August 1895. Though simple, the fountain supplied an unusual element of elegance in the neighborhood, at a public square better known as the meeting point for political demonstrations. A few years later, in 1909, the Seward Park branch of the Public Library (Babb, Cook & Welch, architects) was erected near-by, and this provided an appropriate palace-like background for the fountain. According to a report on the fountain provided to me from the New York City Department of Parks, Schiff "donated the fountain to the City, asking not for recognition of the deed, but only that it ‘be kept in proper condition so that the people of the Seventh Ward may have an opportunity to enjoy it.’

Given the history of the fountain, Schiff's concern with upkeep was legitimate. Within a short time the fountain was being regularly defiled, with its basins field with garbage. To counter this, according to the New York Times (Sept. 27, 1895). The Henry Street settlement organized neighborhood boys to watch over the fountain. The fountain was moved in 1936 to its present location on the western edge of Seward Park. Ironically, this was the same year that Brunner’s Pavilion in Seward Park was demolished.

New York, NY. Seward Park Pavilion, Arnold W. Brunner, architect. Built 1904-05, demolished ca. 1936. Architectural League of New York Annual Exhibition Catalogue,1903.

Since then the fountain has deteriorated. I was recently in the neighborhood and noted its broken condition and inquired to the City of New York/Parks & Recreation, Department of Art & Antiquities, which has (until now unsuccessfully) promoted the fountain's restoration. 

The fountain consists of large circular ground level basin in the center of which is a pedestal supporting a small raised basin. Originally it had two bronze basins surmounted by a finial, an attached drinking fountain with bronze appliques with grotesques at the spouts, and granite semi-circular seats set apart from the fountain itself. The stone seats have been relocated to opposite ends of the park and the lower basin is all that remains of the fountain itself.

The Parks Department has wanted to have the fountain restored for many years. According to a report on the fountain last updated in 2006, "Restoration would include the replacement of missing granite and bronze elements, the cleaning and repointing of the existing granite, and the repair or replacement of the plumbing to make the fountain operable." Unfortunately all efforts to date to fund the project - which would cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million, have been unsuccessful. Work would include:

  • Structural Assessment
  • Repair and Replacement of Missing Elements
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Bronze Repatina and Application of Protective Coating
  • Plumbing Repair
  • Possible Relocation of Benches to Original Position

New York, NY. Seward Park. Schiff Fountain inscription. Photo: S. Gruber 2010.

At first glance there is nothing inherently Jewish about the fountain except its history and the many Jewish communal projects of its sponsor and architect. But a close look reveals a worn inscription from Exodus 17:6 on the pedestal:

"... and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink."

[of course this isn't inherently Jewish, since Christians including Pope Sixtus V in Rome have used it on fountains, too)

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