By Elliot Carter
This odd piece of statuary near the Archives is the Temperance Fountain. It was designed by Henry D. Cogswell, who donated it to the city in 1882. Cogswell was a vocal proponent of abstinence from alcohol and he donated similar fountains to cities across the country.
The thinking behind the fountain was logical: people would consume less alcohol if they had access to clean and cool drinking water. Water from the Washington Aqueduct used to flow out of spouts in the center of the four-columned structure, and pedestrians could quench their thirst by drinking from cups that were attached to the fountain. Overflowing water splashed down into a trough for horses. The system was cooled by a reservoir of ice beneath the fountain.
The Temperance Fountain is thematically embellished with decorations that allude to water. The fountain spouts are concealed within an ornate (but slightly disturbing) set of fish. And a life-sized brass heron stands sentry on the roof of the fountain.
Washingtonians liked to drink, and despite the good intentions of Henry D. Cogswell, they did not appreciate the do gooder Temperance Fountain.
A surprisingly colorful passage from Wikipedia captures public opinion:
"Although the D.C. statue survived mostly unscathed, the San Francisco one was torn down by 'a lynch party of self-professed art lovers' including Gelett Burgess (who was subsequently fired from his job at University of California at Berkeley) and one in Rockville, Connecticut, was thrown into Shenipsic Lake. In Dubuque, Iowa, a statue of Cogswell that sat in Washington Park was pulled down by a group of vandals in 1900 and buried under the ground of a planned sidewalk. The next day the sidewalk was poured and the object was entombed."
The Temperance Fountain didn't do much to decrease alcohol consumption in the District, but it did have an unintended impact on public policy. The unpopularity of Temperance Fountains spurred the creation of fine arts commissions across the country to weed out similar unwanted "gifts".
The Temperance Fountain went on to become a continuous magnet for criticism. The Washington City Paper wrote in a long and hilarious 1992 article about one of the fountain's biggest detractors:
"The D.C. fountain came close to the scrap heap when, in 1945, Sen. Sheridan Downey of California campaigned against it. 'On my first day in Washington, I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and was amazed to discover at 7th Street what was obviously a monstrosity of art,' he said. 'Examining it more closely, I was shocked to see the fair name of San Francisco emblazoned on it.' A photo in the April 11, 1945, Washington Daily News depicts the peevish senator aside the fountain, where a tramp is sprawled out between the columns."
"Downey subsequently introduced a resolution to replace the fountain with a group of figures depicting 'the horror, brutality, and filth of war.' His suggestion sparked an out pouring of apathy. D.C. officials said they didn't care what happened to the monument, and one letter writer to the Daily News beefed that a member of Congress ought to have more important things to worry about."
Senator Downey's proposal was opposed by the capital planning commission, and Ulysses S. Grant III (the former president's grandson), who defended the Temperance Fountain as "ugly, but interesting,"
The bad press has only increased in recent years. In 2003 The Washington Post described it as a "hodgepodge". In 2013 the paper again critiqued "Washington's ugliest statue" for "Silliness, hideousness, futility of message."