Tompkins Square Temperance Fountain – New York, New York - Atlas Obscura
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New York, New York

Tompkins Square Temperance Fountain

A reminder to choose water over wine since 1888. 

In 1888, the Lower East Side’s Moderation Society was very pleased to make the acquaintance of the deep-pocketed Dr. Henry Cogswell of San Francisco.

The Moderation Society had been formed in 1877 to address the health conditions plaguing this particularly dirty, crowded segment of New York City. Top of mind for these reformers was the prohibition of alcohol, which they considered top of list in troublemaking. Temperance groups like the Moderation Society and the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union (which is still active today) blamed alcohol for the bulk of society’s woes, including crime, violence, and disease.

After the Civil War, these groups supplemented their political lobbying with the construction of public drinking fountains, believing that part of boozing prevention was providing a free, clean, and readily available alternative. (At least some of the alcohol consumption around this time can be attributed to the fact that given the option between dirty city water and a beer, it’s easy to pick the beer.) And this is where the Californian dentist comes in.

Henry Cogswell made a fortune in the California gold rush and then made temperance his hobbyhorse. His dream was to erect one temperance fountain for every 100 saloons in the country. He served as the Moderation Society’s honorary president in 1890 and their partnership produced two temperance fountains in New York City: this one in Tompkins Square Park and another at the post office at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Not only did Cogswell bankroll his fountains, he also personally designed them, with varying degrees of success. This one is entirely typical of his style, and—comparatively—not too bad. It’s a pillared stone canopy, topped by a somewhat-demoted figure of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. On Mount Olympus, she served nectar and ambrosia to the gods. In Tompkins Square Park, she serves water to the unwashed masses. Cogswell’s favorite virtues—Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance—are embossed on the sides of her canopy.

The Tompkins Square fountain was better received than several of Cogswell’s creations. His gift to the nation’s capital was famously called “Washington’s ugliest statue” and spurred the creation of fine arts commissions in many American cities, so that officials would have a mechanism to refuse unwanted gifts of public art. The vast majority of Cogswell’s fountains have disappeared over time, but the this one seems destined to stay where it is—a hangover, if you will, from another time.

Know Before You Go

The fountain is located nearest to Avenue A, below 9th Street.