Angel in the Park

Jeff Edelstein, Jessica Harwood, and Carolyn Scott

The book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler takes its young heroes, Claudia and Jamie, through an investigation of a mystery surrounding a statue of an angel. In the course of their research, they visit the New York Public Library, and head through Central Park on their way back to the Metropolitan Museum, unaware that they pass nearby one of New York’s most iconic sculptures of an angel, the grand Bethesda Fountain in the park near 72nd Street.

The fountain was commissioned in 1868 to commemorate the 1842 opening of the Croton Aqueduct, whose reservoir was located at the site of the main branch of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. The biblical gospel of John, Chapter 5, tells the story of the pool of Bethesda, where the angel touched the waters, bestowing healing powers upon them. The new, pure city water could indeed be considered to have had a similarly healthful effect on the public.

At 26 feet high by 96 feet wide, the fountain is one of the largest in New York. The 8-foot bronze angel is supported by allegorical cherubs representing Health, Purity, Temperance, and Peace. Newspaper response to the fountain’s unveiling was largely favorable. The New York World, describing the angel, said, “the figure . . . really seems to the eye to float and hover in the air. . . . This is a rare achievement to effect in a bronze work of this kind.”

In the 1960s, the Bethesda Terrace was a gathering place for flower children and antiwar protesters, who bathed and danced in the waters. A generation later, during the height of the AIDS Crisis in New York, the fountain’s association with healing once again made it a beloved attraction. Bethesda is featured prominently in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, in which the principal characters gather at the fountain in the final scene. The biblical story is retold: “If anyone who was suffering in the body or the spirit walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, they would be healed, washed clean of pain.” “This is my favorite place in New York City, in the universe,” says another character. “She’s my favorite angel.”

Bethesda was funded by the Central Park Commission, led by Henry G. Stebbins, president of the New York Stock Exchange and U.S. congressman. Stebbins lived at 2 West 16th Street, which still stands today. Though built at a grander scale than most standard townhouses, it is dwarfed by the large apartment towers that have grown up beside it.

The commission for the fountain was awarded to Stebbins’ sister Emma. Though this family connection is likely to have played a part, Emma Stebbins was an established sculptor who had lived in Rome among a community of expatriate artists, mostly women, who Henry James famously termed “the white, marmorean flock.” Stebbins met and fell in love with a leading personality of this group, the famous actress Charlotte Cushman. The two remained together as a couple until Cushman’s death in 1876, after which Stebbins gave up her art, compiling Cushman’s letters into a memoir. Stebbins died in 1882, at age 67. Both she and her brother Henry are buried in the Stebbins family plot at the Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Her simple gravestone lacks any sculptural element referencing her career, but includes a biblical quotation from Romans 13:10, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law,” an apparent allusion to her unconventional life.

Bibliography and credits
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