The Stylistic Progression of New York City Fountains

Diana Bowers, Andrea Hansen, and Kelly Kubiak Fish

Some of the very first fountains in ancient times were created to bring clean water to urban citizens, and it was no different in New York City. The first decorative fountain in the United States was the Croton Fountain at City Hall Park, created in conjunction with the Croton dam, aqueduct and reservoir to bring clean water to New York City after the 1832 cholera epidemic and a large fire in 1835. This kind of large-scale movement of water had only recently become possible with technological advances; previously, engineers and architects relied on gravity to get the job done.

The marvel and spectacle of the City Hall fountain was in the water itself, and the feat of engineering that powered it. Soon, this technological advance paved the way for decorative fountains with an aesthetic sculptural appearance. Perhaps New York’s most famous example is the 1868 Bethesda fountain in Central Park, with its angel sculpture as a crown jewel to the city’s monumental urban landscape. Before long, decorative fountains began to grow in popularity in the United States following the European style. Many of these adopted Classical themes. This progression demonstrates the movement away from fountains as symbols of functional water systems and toward purely aesthetic and artistic creations.

As aesthetic tastes progressed, so too did fountain design: Paul Manship’s Prometheus fountain at Rockefeller Center, created in 1933, illustrates the beginning of Art Deco’s popularity in the United States. Fountains were no longer associated with their water but rather with their sculptural elements. They even began to move indoors to restaurants and hotel lobbies. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bastion of artistic taste, the 1954 remodel of the restaurant included a sculptural fountain by Carl Milles, known for his fanciful designs of cavorting nymphs.

In recent years, once again, tastes have changed. Through the latter part of the 20th century, fountains have become progressively more minimal. They showcase the water itself rather than elaborate, artistic sculptures. For example, the fountain at the Brooklyn Museum is simply jets of water shooting out of the ground. The fountains at Columbus Circle were renovated to a simpler design. The Metropolitan Museum’s restaurant is no more, and its fountain was moved to South Carolina. In its place, in what is now the Greek and Roman gallery, there is a small, plain basin.

Perhaps the starkest example of this progression towards minimalism is Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls project, which was installed at four locations around the city in the summer of 2008. Unembellished scaffolding was the only structural element, supporting gallons of water cascading into the river. The waterfalls were lit at night for an even more stunning effect, with the lit water looking as if it was flowing from thin air.

The progression of fountain design in New York City reflects the development of prevailing artistic tastes. New York’s fountains began with the need for water, and have progressed to a celebration of it. When we think of grand fountains, we often think of ornate nineteenth century Neo-Classicism, but as Eliasson proves, New Yorkers’ taste in fountains has lately returned to the original star of the show: the water itself.

Bibliography and credits
Americasroof. (2008). Waterfall in foreground under the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan Bridge located in background. [Color image]. Retrieved from

Arthur Vitols Bryon Company. (1937). [Hotel White, the Lounge]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Atwill, J.F. (1842). Croton water celebration, 1842 [Postcard]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

[Bethesda fountain and terrace, Central Park, New York City] (n.d.). [postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Bowers, D. (2008). Children playing in the Brooklyn Museum fountain. [Digital photograph].

Bowers, D. (2008). Fountain, Brooklyn Museum of Art. [Color photograph].

Bowers, D. (2008).Olafur Eliasson waterfall at Governors Island. [Color photograph].

Bowers, D. (2012).Tefft Fountain, New York Botanical Gardens. [Digital photograph].

Bracklow, R. L. (c.1890) Fountain at Bethesda Terrace [Postcard, gelatin silver print]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Breisch, K.A. & Symmes, M.F. (1998). Fountains, splash and spectacle: Water and design from the Renaissance to the present. New York, NY: Rizzoli International in association with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Brown, A. (2008). The Waterfalls in New York City taken near Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. [Color image]. Retrieved from

Brush, E.H. (1913). Fountain and garden sculpture. Fine Arts Journal, 29(3), pp.557-559. Retrieved from Access date: 24/10/2012.

[Central Park May party and fountain, New York]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Maether & Co. (New York, NY). Collection of Quinn Lai. Retrieved from

[Central Park terrace and fountain, New York]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Chung, J. (2005). Fountains of New York City. [Color image].Retrieved from

[City Hall and Municipal Building, New York City]. ]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Coldwell, D. (2007). Brookgreen Gardens – sculpture garden: Fountain of the
Muses by Carl Milles. [Color image]. Retrieved from

Collins, S. (c.1846). Autumn Waltz. Retrieved from

Colvin, M. (2007). The Marple Viaduct over the River Goyt from the Marple Aqueduct in Greater Manchester, England.[Digital image]. Retrieved from

[Court and fountain interior of restaurant, designed by Dorothy Draper, Metropolitan Museum of Art]. (1954). [Black and white photograph]. Retrieved from

Croton Aqueduct – Harper’s 1860 – The Distributing Reservoir in the Fifth Avenue, New York. (1860). [Black and white illustration for Harper’s Magazine, digital reproduction]. Retrieved from,_New_York.jpg.

Croton Reservoir. (c. 1865-1925). [Digital image of a stereoscopic view]. Collection of United States in Stereo: In the Robert N. Dennis. Retrieved from

DeJesus, N. (2007). Fountains as a synthesis of sculpture, water, and land. Sculpture Review, 56(2), pp. 18-23.

[Dorothy Draper restaurant with Carl Milles fountain]. (c.1954). [black and white photograph]. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from

[Famous Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Plaza, New York]. (c.1940s). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Feininger, A. (1975). [6th Ave in the 50s ]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

[Fountain in Promenade – Rockefeller Center, New York]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Fry, S.E. (1913). Wall fountain, Country Estate of Robert S. Brewster, Westchester County, NY [Black and white photograph].

Gottscho, S.H. (1934) RCA Building, direct view closeup of Prometheus [Acetate negative]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Gottscho, S.H. (1934) RCA Building from a low point [Acetate negative]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. (1937). West side highway, Department of Parks. [Acetate negative] Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Hathorn, B. (2011). Fountain near Columbus Circle, NYC [Digital image]. Retrieved from,_NYC_IMG_3961.JPG.

Heinrich Heine Memorial Fountain, New York. (1908). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Jones, W.L. (2007). The appeal of water. Sculpture Review, 56(2), pp. 24-33.

Krulwich, S. (2007). The center hall, now called the Leon Levy and Shelby White court. [Plain large basin inside Roman court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]. The New York Times Company. Retrieved from

LaRue, C. (c.1960). James Fountain in Union Square. [Gelatin silver print]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

McIntyre, L. (2007, Jan.). Hello, Columbus. Landscape Architecture, 97(1), pp. 90-101.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (c.1900). [Postcard]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Minh, B.T. (2007). The fountain at Lincoln Center. [Color image]. Attributed to Retrieved from Eliasson’s NY-Waterfalls at Pier 35. (2008). [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from

Ogden, B. (1937). City Hall Park, Statue, Civic Virtue [postcard]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Rolph, J.A. (c.1843). Fountain in the Park, New York [engraved expressly for Artist by John A. Rolph]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Siefkin, D.R. (2010). Roman fountain providng water to bathing pool of baths at Glanum, 1st century AD (Copy of the original in museum in Saint Remy de Provence). Retrieved from

Smilie, J. (c.1850). Park Fountain of City Hall N.Y. [engraving for Graham’s Magazine]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from

Symmes, M. (1998). Fountains: Designing for the rise and fall of water. Drawing, 20(1), pp. 1-6.

Taft, L. (1913). Fountains. Art and Progress, 4(5), Special Sculpture Number, pp. 892-899. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2012 from

Taylor, F.H. (1956). Aganippe: The fountain of the muses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 14(5), pp.109-113. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2012 from

[Terraces in Central Park, New York]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

[Washington arch and fountain, New York City]. (n.d.). [Postcard]. Collection of Quinn Lai.

Wiles, B.H. (1935). An exhibition of the fountain. Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum, 4(2), pp. 28-33. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2012 from

Wilkin, K. (2008). Waterworks. The New Criterion, pp.42-46.

Wurts Brothers. (1965). [Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, front elevation from portico of New York State Theater]. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: