The Ego Fountain

Lesser-known DC: the Cogswell Temperance Fountain, an example of how ego paints good intentions with ugliness.

Henry Cogswell started adult life as a dentist, in an age when dentistry didn’t require formal credentials, a discomforting fact to contemplate. Born in New England, he took his dental skills to California during the gold rush. Although he was apparently both innovative and successful as a dentist, investment in real estate and stocks made him rich.

While in California he attached himself to the as-yet-unproven theory that if people have access to cool fresh water, they will shun alcoholic beverages. He decided in the 1880s to provide free drinking fountains in American cities, one for every 100 saloons, an ambitious agenda indeed, displaying great faith in water. Many were built: miraculously, some still survive.

Cogswell fountains in San Francisco depicted the man himself dispensing water to the grateful masses, a temperance pledge in one hand, a cup of H2O in the other. A small, ungrateful mob knocked one down in 1894. They were tempting targets for tipplers nationwide. In Rockville, CT, the statue of Cogswell proffering his glass of water was knocked from the fountain and tossed into a lake. DC’s fountain, as is common in the District, was forced on the city by Congress, which in 1882 passed a bill allowing him to donate the fountain over the city’s objections. [1.  The Washington Post, Jun 27, 1882; The Washington Post, Nov 18, 1883. A Cogswell Temperance Fountain remains in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, among other places]

Cogswell’s mistake was to design the things himself. It seems that while you can teach yourself dentistry, and investing, ornamental public sculpture is another order of business altogether. Cogswell’s original design, now lost,  repeated the egotism of the San Francisco statue. The Washington National Republican  wrote, in 1883:

On the top of the fountain however looms up a statue of a man with full whiskers which is supposed to be a likeness of Dr Cogswell, the donor, holding a cup in his hand. What Washington has done that to the many statues of dead heroes whose names are famous in the country’s history should be added the statue of Dr Cogswell with a cup in his outstretched hand is hard to discover. [1. See also The Washington Post (1877-1922); Nov 18, 1883]

The writer had a point. Washington even today is a city full of memorials to political figures: politicians, military men, civic leaders rather than famous actors, artists or heroic dogs. A career in moral persuasion isn’t enough; you don’t get a statue in Washington unless your moral suasion made it into law. [1. DC does have some Shakespeare-related sculptery near the Folger Shakespeare Library , which looks by intent very much like the public buildings near which it resides. It also has a statue of Einstein, beloved of mothers with small children.]

DC’s fountain, installed in June of 1884, lacks the statue of Cogswell. But it’s ungainly, and ugly; disproportionate, cramped, and gawky.

It’s a square temple-ish structure with four columns, resting on bases of no determinable style. The roof, spare, clumsy and blunt, bears the words “Faith,” “Hope,” “Charity” and “Temperance,” one on each side. A central column proclaims Henry Cogswell of San Francisco as the source of this beneficence.

In place of Dr. Cogswell’s statue, the DC fountain has this nicely patina’d crane/heron/stork on the roof, standing on an implausible stone base.  The bird isn’t just perched there, enjoying the benefits of temperance: a single reed grows next to it, suggesting that a tiny riverbank resides on top of a granite shed. If there is a tradition associating long-legged water birds with temperance, I don’t know of it.

It also has two generic scaly fish-things, intertwined on the central column. They originally spouted not just water, but ice water. Cogswell, something of an inventor, had patented a device to produce cool water and air using ice in 1883. The statue includes a kind of well around the central column, designed to hold blocks of ice. City water in pipes would flow through tube coils under the ice, and then up and out of the snouts of the fish, where small brass cups waited, attached to the statue via chains. The water that overflowed went into a trough for horses. In the hard drinking 1880s, it seems, horses needed the same sort of encouragment to avoid spirits as their human owners.

Ice water on a hot summer day in DC is pleasant indeed, but it’s not clear it ever worked, and apparently the city stopped stocking the ice chamber early on. City officials contemplated connecting the fountain to a spring in the late 1880s, to provide cool water without ice, but alas found the spring to be polluted with sewage. In 1928 the Sons of Jonadab, a local temperance society, tried to reinvigorate the icing process, lowering a 600 pound block into the well. The experiment failed completely, because the water didn’t stay in contact with the ice long enough.[1. The Washington Post Jul 26, 1928; July 29 1928] The ice well is today full of trash and gives off a bad smell.

For many years, into the 1980s, the fountain stood squarely at the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania, directly in front of the ambitiously named Apex Liquor store. The Cogswell Fountain was moved to its current location, about 100 feet north and across seventh street, in 1987. It reposes near the GAR memorial, the memorial to Winfield Scott Hancock, the Navy memorial, and the real FDR memorial. Few men now living can recall it actually providing water.

What it provides, with its awkward mix of styles and themes, is confirmation of the general suspicion that abstemious people tend to be socially graceless, preachy, self-righteous, and slightly unbalanced. When vandals toppled his statue in San Francisco, Cogswell was not surprised. He was used to criticism, he said, but furthermore he added “I do not believe in people being compelled, whether they wish it or not, to go into a saloon to slake their thirst.” He had been to Europe and seen many street fountains, and he wished to see the same here.

There’s a core of decency to the gesture–cool water for everyone! But the fountains in Europe typically did not have statues to teetotaling dentists. Decency accompanied by improving lectures and self-aggrandizement has a decidedly off-taste. And Cogswell fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between water and alcohol. No one drinks rum to hydrate. It’s not at all clear that anyone  believes in people being compelled to go into saloons to slake their thirst, “whether they wish it or not,” or that anyone ever did. Cogswell is arguing against an imaginary foe: he cannot imagine why people would drink alcohol, and so he’s concluded it must be some form of external compulsion, from which he will free them. The aesthetic awkwardness of the fountain reflects his inability to understand his fellow persons. Temperance itself isn’t ugly,  but the fountain surely is.

NOTE: It’s possible that in DC in 1885 publicly accessible, potable drinking water was hard to come by, and that in this sense people were “compelled” to go into saloons to slake their thirst. But none of the newspaper accounts of the fountain mention a shortage of potable water, and of course if demand for water was high, there would surely be water available for sale, as with bottled water today, and perhaps even for sale in saloons.






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