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Unraveling the History of Central Park's Bethesda Fountain

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Welcome to a special Outdoors Week edition of Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Evan Bindelglass traces the history of an iconic New York City structure. Have a nomination? Please send it to the tipline.

"There's a spot in Central Park, the Bethesda Fountain, where if you sit there long enough, the entire city walks by."

—Matthew Perry as Alex Whitman, "Fools Rush In" (1997) Central Park co-designer Calvert Vaux called Bethesda Fountain "the centre of the centre." Its story is one of uplifting innovation in water transport, impressive architecture, and the novel creation of spaces dedicated to leisure in verdant surrounds; meanwhile, the little-known tale of its underdog designer getting her first shot in the art world is one that's not touted nearly enough. The structure's symbolic meaning, too, synonymous with love, peace, and healing, shouldn't be overlooked. So let's start at the beginning.

First, a little history of the park itself. In 1853, the New York State government set aside 750 acres smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan to create our plucky young country's first major landscaped public park. In 1858, a contest was held to see who would design it. Vaux, partnered with fellow landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, submitted entry #33, also known as the "Greensward plan," and won. The dynamic duo would go on to partner in the planning and construction of Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, and Morningside Park. (NB: here's more on Central Park's historic design and how it differs from today's layout.)

One of the great expanses that remains in Central Park from the original design is The Mall. At the northern end of the north-south walkway lined with elm trees—on par with 72nd Street—lies Bethesda Terrace. Vaux wanted to create innovative architecture for that stretch that proved "it to be a genuine American invention." The Terrace, defined by its stately staircases and elegant archways overlooking the lake, was where Vaux "realized that vision in collaboration with his talented and bohemian colleague Jacob Wrey Mould," said Sara Cedar Miller, Associate Vice President for Park Information and Historian at the Central Park Conservancy and author of "Central Park, An American Masterpiece." And who, pray tell, was Mould?

Vaux was intimately involved with the creation of Bethesda Terrace, and Cedar Miller said he probably hired the English-born Mould during initial design work in 1858. Mould put onto paper Vaux's fantasy of a bi-level arcade with Romanesque arches. The structure was originally intended for a Garden Arcade on Fifth Avenue, though, but that site became Conservatory Water, now the remote-control boat pond, between 73rd and 75th Streets on the East Side.

When the design features meant for the Garden Arcade were combined with an existing idea for an "Italian Terrace" at the northern edge of The Mall, it meant the birth of Bethesda Terrace as we know it. It was Vaux's idea that the whole space, including its central fountain, would be about "love." An angel, the figure that ended up topping the fountain, can be viewed as a representative of God, and thus of love itself. But first, the story of the sculptor, whose trajectory can be seen as the embodiment of love found, and then lost.

In 1864 (exactly 150 years ago), sculptor Emma Stebbins (b. 1815) was tapped to craft the work of art in the middle of the fountain that would be the terrace's centerpiece. It was the only major sculpture commissioned for the park during its original design and construction. Cedar Miller speculated that her getting the assignment may have had something to do with her brother Henry being president of the park's board of commissioners, and that he may have even worked his way into the position to promote his sister's career. Regardless, it would be hard to look at what she created and say she wasn't qualified. When Stebbins got the gig, it was a huge deal: she was the first woman to receive a major sculptural commission in New York City.

In the mid-19th century, many American sculptors went to Rome to receive training they couldn't get back home. Stebbins was among them. In 1857, she met world-famous American actress Charlotte Cushman and the two instantly hit it off. A romance was kindled. At the time, such a relationship was often known as a "Boston marriage." Cedar Miller wrote of Stebbins that "the shy and self-effacing artist would not have tried to garner those prestigious commissions by herself. Rather, Stebbins was encouraged in her pursuits by her brother Henry and her other guardian angel, her companion and lover Charlotte Cushman." So perhaps it's thanks to Cushman that, 141 years after its completion, New Yorkers have the fountain they have—angel-topped and all.

"Bethesda Fountain is the social and spiritual center of Central Park," Cedar Miller wrote. "Just as the well was the gathering in Ancient Jerusalem or Rome, so too this symbolic pool is one of the great gathering places of New York." There's even more meaning beneath the surface. By definition, a fountain is inevitably about water; another name for Bethesda Fountain is the "Angel of the Waters," which alludes to its healing power and has Biblical overtones. A pamphlet from the statue's dedication on May 31, 1873 links the angel at its top to a passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 5, verses 2-4:

"Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the movement of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water, whosever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in, was made whole of whatever disease he had."

New York City had recently benefited from the Croton Aqueduct system, which brought fresh water down from upstate starting in 1842. What is now the Great Lawn, in fact, used to be a second Central Park reservoir for water storage. By delivering clean H20 to city residents, the aqueduct system saved New York City from a cholera epidemic. The statue of the angel was originally meant to face north, towards the two reservoirs—the nearest sources of disease-free water. Cedar Miller said that the direction was likely changed because having it look towards the south would be more welcoming to people walking north on The Mall and standing on or descending from the Terrace.

Let's analyze the statue: Underneath the angelic topper, the 26-foot-tall fountain has four cherubs at its center level. They represent temperance, purity, health, and peace. While peace doesn't automatically mean love, the 1860s and 70s marked the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction—likely the reason it took so long to complete the project. "Peace, the political equivalent of Love, was prayed for daily," Cedar Miller wrote, "when the nation most needed healing waters." [Photo of the fountain today via Wikimedia Commons/abmaac.]

It is worth noting that in 1869, Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. In addition to having two mastectomies, Cushman tried water cures in England. (Water cures were a big craze from the 1830s through the 1860s). Yet another connection to her partner's piece de resistance. Unfortunately, Cushman's treatments were ultimately unsuccessful. Her final performance was as Lady Macbeth in New York City in 1875, a performance marked by fireworks and a torchlight procession through the streets. She died a year later. Today, many Central Park races, including the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, which raises money to fight breast cancer, end near Bethesda Fountain. So, next time you run a race, think about Cushman (and Stebbins, who died not long after, in 1882).

Fast forward about three-quarters of a century, and the fountain still served as a place for leisure and diversion, contemplation and reflection. Even as the battles in World War II theaters worsened, New Yorkers could find tranquility at Bethesda Fountain, as seen in these photographs from a Sunday in September of 1942.

The fountain even survived the 1970s, when New York City's overall deterioration left it dry, too. In the 1980s, the Central Park Conservancy undertook a complete rebuilding of the terrace and cleaned, repainted, resealed the fountain. According to the NYC Parks Department, "bronze specialists now wash and wax the fountain annually."

Another notable piece of Bethesda Fountain's history? It's an iconic filming location for both the big and small screen. Check out just a few of them in the gallery below; click on an image to see the movie's title and year of release.

That's the past. So what's the future of Bethesda Fountain? To this day, it remains a place to sit, rest, and people-watch. (A la Annie Hall.) It's a landmark, a meeting point. It's a spot where contemporary romance is ignited, much like that of its progenitors. So head over to Central Park and live out the next chapter of the Angel of the Waters' history.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Historic Maps Reveal the Secrets of Four Iconic NYC Parks [Curbed]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]
· All Outdoors Week 2014 coverage [Curbed]