A charming urban feature on Harlem's Sugar Hill recalls a not-too-distant time when man and beast once settled around the same watering hole.
The late 19th-century Hooper Memorial Fountain sits at the approach of the West 155th Street Viaduct to Macomb’s Dam Bridge, within view of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It's a drinking fountain, yes, but the likes of which one rarely sees anymore, as it rises with the flourish of a Beaux Arts monument.
A philanthropic gift
Built in 1894, the fountain was a posthumous gift to the city from the late John Hooper (1812-1889), a former stockholder of the New York Tribune, who had bequeathed $5,000 for its erection. Local property owners of the Washington Heights Association agreed to provide the fountain’s base for free. The New England Monument Company of New York City built the structure according to the designs of architect George Martin Huss.
According to the American Architect and Building News, the fountain was considered “one of the largest drinking-basins in the country made from a single piece of stone.” A column of pink Italian granite, topped by a richly-carved Ionic cap, rises from the basins grouped around its base, and terminates with a bronze lantern encased within a plate-glass globe. A bronze weathervane perches upon the globe about twenty-eight feet from the ground.
Fountain for both man and beast
In 1896, the New York Times noted the fountain’s use “by both man and beast,” as was intended. Multi-level spouts and troughs made it convenient to the sporting men, and their equally sporting horses, who patronized the nearby Polo Grounds and the Speedway along the Harlem River. The basins were also configured to accommodate dogs.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals--today’s ASPCA--promoted these unique urban features, usually philanthropic gifts, which punctuated city streets in varying designs. An inscription on the 1894 Hooper Fountain reads: Presented to the City of New York by John Hooper. Erected MDCCCXCIV.”
In 1983 vandals toppled the column, but civic-minded Sugar Hill residents spearheaded restoration of the structure. New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked the Macombs Dam Bridge, 155th Street Viaduct and the Hooper Fountain's surrounding Maher Circle in 1992. The Department of Parks celebrated the fountain's restoration with a ribbon-cutting in 2001.
However, the Hooper Fountain may be more a feast for sore eyes than an oasis. The utility is inoperative. Despite its ceremonious recovery, "the fountain is under the jurisdiction of several different city departments," a website maintained by students of Columbia University's Historic Preservation Program of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation observes. The morass of municipal bureaucracies doesn't manage to get water flowing through the fountain's pipes, much less inspire confidence that it will be potable.
Today, a thirsty wanderer is left high and dry, given to wistful contemplation of a city once overflowing with lavish public furniture. The Hooper Fountain is still a thing of beauty. Drink it in, but be advised to bring your own water bottle.