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.

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