The Fascinating History of Schiff Fountain in Seward Park

schiff fountain now

Image of Schiff Fountain from “Parks Without Borders” presentation.

Big changes are, of course, coming to Seward Park.  A $6.4 million renovation through the city’s Parks Without Borders program is expected to be completed before the end of this year. Meanwhile, the Seward Park Conservancy is launching a fundraising campaign to restore the historic Jacob H. Schiff Fountain, which borders the park on Essex Street.

The other night, the conservancy and DLJ Capital Partners (owners of the Jarmulowsky building) hosted a shindig in the bamboo garden across from the park. Those in attendance were treated to an oral history of the fountain from Andrew Fairweather, senior librarian at the Seward Park Library. With his permission, we’re publishing his presentation here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Conservancy and/or making a donation, visit the organization’s website.

 


 

Photo by: Aime Dupont [Public domain].

Photo by: Aime Dupont [Public domain].

The history of the fountain in Seward Park might as well begin with some background on the person responsible for its construction—Jacob Schiff.

Jacob Henry Schiff was born on January 10th of 1847 in Frankfurt, Germany, attending Jewish schools until the age of 14, when he began a business apprenticeship with his brother-in-law. In 1865 he emigrated to the United States, working briefly at a brokerage firm. A mere year later he formed his own firm called Schiff and Company. He became a naturalized citizen in 1870.[1]

Though an investment banker by trade, Schiff is remembered primarily for his philanthropic work as a champion for education and the arts, archaeology, Jewish causes, and the instruction of deaf mute children of poor families.

Upon his death at the age of 74 Schiff left a sum of a whopping $50,000,000—an amount which was actually smaller than the total sum he’d donated to charity during his lifetime. He was remembered as a man who “perhaps more than any other in the last quarter century, stood out as a benefactor of the Jewish race in America.” On the news of his death, 10,000 signs were printed in English and Hebrew and displayed in Jewish districts throughout the City.[2]

Though Schiff’s fountain now sits in Seward Park, it’s original location was in what is now Straus Square, named after the businessman, philanthropist, and promoter of milk pasteurization and distribution. Today, where the fountain once stood, is a monument to the men and women of the Lower East Side who served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.[3]

This small triangle of land at the intersection of Essex, Division, and Canal Streets had not always been known by the name of Nathan Straus. It was first known as Tweed Plaza, named after the infamous William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall, who was eventually jailed in the Ludlow Street Jail, a structure where the Seward Park High School Campus now sits (two structures which, oddly enough, look very similar…). Despite his arrest and fall from grace, the first project for this triangle was proposed by loyalists of the Tweed regime—a colossal brass statue of Boss Tweed as a “big Indian” figure, seated in an armchair holding in his right hand a scroll of the City charter and a pipe of peace in his left. On the armchair was to be inscribed,

I love it, I love it, and who shall dare

To chide me for loving this old arm chair.

An estimated sum of $50,000 was needed to be raised for construction.[4] Certainly, the irony of of raising a monument to a living personage on trial for being a municipal thief and democratic tyrant was not lost on many City reformers. Loyalists to Tweed, who were in great number on the Lower East Side, nevertheless insisted that, “no man is a thief until he has been convicted by the courts, and in the meantime Tweed is a loyal democratic statesman of unimpeachable partisan record.” Committees were assigned in several wards to raise funds for its construction. Apparently, the funds were amassed very quickly—indeed, nothing prevented the erection of the statue apart from his eventual exposure as a thief in a court of law.[5]

Most likely stemming from the controversy surrounding Tweed’s career, the square was at some point renamed Rutgers Square after the same Revolutionary War figure and landowner which Rutgers Street is named after. It was renamed Straus Square in 1931 months after the death of Nathan Straus.

Straus Square.

Straus Square.

In 1894, Schiff consulted with his friends on what would be of the most profitable sort of donation for the Lower East Side—it was agreed that a fountain would, more than anything, be of the greatest benefit to the people of this section. Plans were then drawn up by architect Arnold W. Brunner and approved by Vice President Noonan of the Board of Aldermen. Schiff therefore proposed to build a fountain in Rutgers Square to render a dreary spot on the East Side a beauty. The total cost was estimated at $65,000.[6]

On Tuesday, November 20th, 1894 the Board of Aldermen adopted a resolution granting Schiff permission to erect the fountain, and a week later, at the request of Judge Joseph E. Newburger, mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy affixed his signature to the said resolution on the 28th of that very same month.[7]

Schiff’s fountain was not meant to be a monument in Schiff’s honor, but a gift—that the fountain did not bear Schiff’s name testified to this. As a book to a friend or lover, the fountain was inscribed to reflect that the gift was given in “this year of our grace, 1895.” A second inscription was drawn from Exodus xvii, 6:– “And there shall come water out of it that the people may drink.” As soon as Brunner’s firm, Brunner & Tryon, had finished the granite and bronze fountain, a landmark which, including the seating, covered an entire radius of 60 feet plus five feet of narrow pavement, the proverbial keys to the fountain were immediately turned over to the City. In stature the two bronze basins were 22 feet by 10 feet in diameter, with drinking fountains hewn out of large pieces of granite, complete with mouldings that produced a “good effect of light and shade.” The fountain featured grotesque masks at the spouts as well as four bronze appliqués, combining marine shells and dolphins. The water lines from the spouts were particularly beautiful, having been carefully studied from Italian models with falling spray and denser water volumes which were said to accentuate the design of the structure.[8]

Photograph by Edwin Levick, National Geographic Creative; April 1916.

Photograph by Edwin Levick, National Geographic Creative; April 1916.

Yet, it was not always a given that the City would commit to connecting their water mains with the fountain. Indeed, a push for water needed to be made. Citizens of the City Vigilance League demanded that the fountain be connected to the City’s water mains, stating that—

The slight cost of furnishing water cannot under any pretense be compared to the pleasure and recreation that will be afforded the overcrowded and hard-working people who gather around the fountain in an endeavor to secure a breath of cool air. 

To reject the magnanimous gift of Mr. Schiff is not only an insult to the kind donor, but also to the thousands whom he has endeavored to benefit.[9]

Perhaps the chronic distrust in human nature was the only thing preventing an all out celebration of Schiff’s commitment in stone. Authorities were suspicious the fountain would quickly serve as a trash receptacle, plugging up with banana peels and other such refuse. Within two weeks into the water being turned on these grim predictions were realized. Two policemen were tasked to, “keep the unlucky fountain in working order” but to no avail.

That this was of tremendous concern to the neighborhood was apparent, with leading figures in the neighborhood determined to fight for the fountain’s dignity—Lilian Wald, nurse and founder of Henry Street Settlement took it upon herself to arrange for the protection of the crown jewel of Rutgers Square. Soliciting help from boys from the Settlement house, a day-and-night watchman’s league of sorts was formed to preserve order at the site of the fountain. This solicitation was apparently very well received by the boys who congregated with the City Vigilance League and Good Government club to discuss best approaches.

These meetings resulted in the creation of the Fountain League. The League volunteers all wore badges to indicate membership, which totaled 100 boys over 12 years old, furnished with officer titles such as President (Joseph Goldstein), vice president (Morris Frankel), clerk (S. Joseph), treasurer (David Widrowitz), sargeant-at-arms (E. Frank),  and assistant sargeant-at-arms (Jacob Wisensky). At the time of inception there was even talk of the boys forming a uniformed cadet corps.

President Roosevelt of the police commission promised to aid the boys in their commitment. Colonel Waring of the street cleaning department, knowing full-well that the protection of the fountain was a formidable undertaking, promised to provide two steel cans for the deposit of the “dead cats, old rags, banana and orange peels and other flotsam and jetsam that in the past mysteriously found their way into the recesses of the Rutgers Square fountain.”

Whether or not the League resolved the issues with fountain cleanliness remains unanswered, though it is without doubt that the experiment was watched with much interest by Lower East Siders.[10

On occasion, the fountain could be a lifesaver—in 1909 a taylor by the name of Samuel Rosenberg of No. 141 Delancey Street was sitting in Essex Market court to discover that, somehow, his trousers had caught fire. Bystanders stood by and gawked as Mr. Rosenberg ran down Essex Street in what must’ve been a mad panic as flames gushed from his right hip pocket. A little girl yelled, “Mister, you’re burning!”, to which Mr. Rosenberg yelled back, “I know it better than you—to the water for mine.” He then dove into the water with just his head poking out for air. A friend fished him out and asked him what on earth he wanted doing a thing like that. “Another pair of pants,” replied Rosenberg, vowing never to carry loose matches in his pockets again.[11]

NYC Parks Photo Archive/Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments.

NYC Parks Photo Archive/Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments.

The fountain sat at the center of a hub of Yiddish newspaper press whose dealers all congregated around Rutgers Square.[12] The fountain was surely useful as a way of cooling off during the harsh summers, especially in these days where air-conditioning was not a feature of everyday life. While photographic and video evidence exists of children bathing in the fountain, it is suggested that this was not always allowed, as two boys, Solomon Liebowitz and Samuel Mulbofsky found in 1904 when they were singled out amongst a group of lads who thought they’d sneak a dip in the East Side oasis. Harry J. Solomon of No. 71 Forsyth Street, seeing the commotion, called for the police. The boys began to scurry when the policeman approached. They quickly and indiscriminately grabbed whatever clothes they could find, leaving Liebowitz and Mulbofsky without a set of their own. Surely mortified, the pair sought refuge under a bush. The policeman placed them under arrest, covering them with a piece of canvass until clothing could be found.[13]

Commotion around the fountain often breached the quotidian affairs of Lower East Siders. It will probably come as no surprise to most that Rutgers Square, and the fountain by extension, was a center for radicalism in New York. Even the Seward Park children’s librarian in 1917 made repeated references in the department journal to Socialist meetings in Rutgers Square. On one occasion, a May Day parade was being planned to take place in Union Square where Veterans of Foreign Wars were to assemble to celebrate “Americanization Day” along with 20,000 supporters and Russians sympathetic to the pre-Soviet royalist regime. The gathering was to feature denunciations of Communism as a matter of course. In a counter-assembly the 1,800 Communists gathered at our very own Rutgers Square, spilling over into the Seward Park forum, to march over to Union Square for a demonstration at 3pm when the Americanization assembly was set to disperse. The Communists promised a peaceful gathering.[14]

Not all meetings were peaceful. In an area that was at a disadvantage to much of the rest of the City, the Lower East Side was a political powderkeg. Such was the case when the Industrial Workers of the World vocally denounced the Mayor and the Vanderbilt, Astor and Morgan families after 191 of their comrades had been arrested. They vowed to raid churches, restaurants, and hotels until all the unemployed had been housed and fed by the State.[15] Whatever was meant by “raiding” was not clear from the brief article reporting on the incident.

Schiff Fountain, Seward Park, 2017.

Schiff Fountain, Seward Park, 2017.

Yes, the fountain which sat in the Square must’ve seen plenty of action, as it gushed forth during the period where the Lower East Side would reach its highest density in 1910. From buying and selling to demonstrations and strikes, to riots, to the arrest of anarchist Emma Goodman herself… yet the neighborhood would calm down considerably as it depopulated to almost half its size in the 1930s. This was not the only change the 1930s would bring. A subway would be built connecting Essex/Delancey Street to East Broadway, requiring extensive tunneling that would take many structures in its wake—the old P.S. 62, and the Seward Park forum being among the notable. The fountain, too, would need to go—but instead of being demolished completely, it and its stone benches would be moved to their current location in Seward Park in 1931. It is unknown to me whether or not the fountain ever again circulated water but it is generally accepted that in the second half of the 20th century the structure suffered the same fate that Seward Park and many City parks suffered—neglect and disrepair.

Though the park would finally receive a much-needed renovation in 1999, nothing would restore it to its former glory. Perhaps the current “Parks Without Borders” renovation can serve to renew our commitment to the fountain, as the fountain was Schiff’s commitment to the Lower East Side itself.

Rendering of proposed Schiff Fountain restoration.

Rendering of proposed Schiff Fountain restoration by Studio Castellano.

 

[1] Schiff, Jacob Henry, Best, Gary Dean (American National Biograhpy) [1999]

https://doi-org.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0802117

[2] EAST SIDE MORNING FOR JACOB H. SCHIFF. New York Herald, Mon, Sept 27, 1920 Page 7 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019

[3] https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/straus-square/history

[4] New York Herald, The Proposed Monument to Mr. Tweed. Jan 21, 1871 page 4 iss 21 vol XXXVI

[5] Oregonian. Monuments to Incapacity. Jan 11, 1889

[6] New York Herald. Nov 28, 1894. Page 10 Issue 332

[7] To Accept Mr. Schiff’s Gift. New York Times.Nov 28, 1894

[8] The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts. Jul 20, 1895; 24, 700 Pg. 45

[9] KING’S BRIDGE ROAD GRANT, New York Times Aug 21, 1895.

[10] TO GUARD A FOUNTAIN.  The Wilkes-Barre News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) Sat, Oct 5, 1895, Page 6 Downloaded on Oct 11, 2019

[11] TAILOR’S TROUSERS AFIRE IN COURT. New York Tribune (New York, New York) Tue, Jul 20 1909, Page 12 Downloaded on Oct 11

[12] Off the record. Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) Fri, Aug 21, 1959 Page 9 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019 as remembered by Nathan Ziprin

[13] Clothed like Adam. The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) Fri, Sep 2, 1904 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019

[14] NEW YORK POLICE READY FOR MAY DAY. United Press

[15] MASS MEETING IN NEW YORK THREATENS TO MAKE RAIDS.