Hamilton Fountain

By Sabrina  |  February 8, 2013  |  Points of Interest

Crafted from Tennessee marble, this ornately carved fountain is surmounted by an eagle with wings spread, beneath which are decorative motifs, a coat of arms, a dolphins’ head spray feature, a shell-shaped spill basin, and a larger foliate catch basin. Created for “man and beast,” and designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Station, the fountain was evidently intended primarily as a drinking fountain for horses. It was installed in 1906, during an era when the streets of Manhattan were frequented by thousands of horses on a daily basis, and equine transport was the principal means of conveying goods and people around the city. It is one of the finest and last surviving examples of the decorative horse troughs that once dotted the city’s landscape. Located at West 76th Street and Riverside Drive, the fountain contains an inscription that reads, “Bequeathed to the people of New York by Robert Ray Hamilton.”

Robert Ray Hamilton, a descendant of Alexander Hamilton was a wealthy sportsman, businessman and politician, who drowned on a hunting trip in 1890. He was surrounded by scandal at the time of his death, since he was in the midst of a divorce from his wife, a known bigamist who was in prison for “atrocious assault.” His wife, it seems, in addition to having another husband, had attempted to steal another woman’s child, and stabbed the baby’s nurse in a fight. In his will Hamilton left $9,000 to build the fountain in his memory. The highly respectable Hamilton family did not want a monument erected in honor of the black sheep member of their family, and they strongly opposed the fountain.

The decline of horse-drawn commercial vehicles resulted in the virtual elimination of these fountains by World War II.  While the Hamilton Fountain survived, it fell into disrepair, was vandalized, and its plumbing ceased to function.  For a period neighborhood volunteers maintained aquatic plants in the still water of the basin, and even koi swam here. In 2009 private donations to the Riverside Park Conservancy made possible the restoration of the fountain, including conservation of the ornamentation (the eagle got a new beak!), installation of new electrical and plumbing service, repaving of the plaza with hexagonal blocks, and planting four serviceberry trees.