DC’s Quirky Temperance Fountain

It’s surrounded by museums (National Archives, United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, and more if you walk just a block or two in almost any direction). It’s been called “a monstrosity of art.” It has been labeled the ugliest statue, as well as one of the most peaceful places, in Washington, DC. It’s a fountain, but it’s been dry for many decades.

The Temperance Fountain was given to the city by San Francisco dentist and temperance advocate Henry D. Cogswell in 1882. It was meant to be a sort of gift that keeps on giving, with ever-flowing clean drinking water that would offer the public an alternative to alcohol. The fountain also made water available for horses, so in a way it was also like a gas station for its time.


Real birds hanging out with the Temperance Fountain’s fake bird in 2005

Sculptures of animals (what I’ve seen described as a heron or a stork at the top, and fish or dolphins in the center) complete the fountain’s apparently polarizing aesthetic. Four virtues are emblazoned across the top: Hope, Faith, Charity, and Temperance.

Temperance referred to the movement that promoted abstention from alcohol, eventually leading to Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

I think of Charity as Cogswell’s well-meaning commission and donation of water fountains to DC as well as several other cities. Whether or not one drinks alcohol, all humans and horses can benefit from free, potable water.

Cogswell must have had Hope and Faith that the waters would flow eternally, but alas, the city stopped providing ice for the water cooling system at some point. (I have not found any source that gives a specific year.) In 1945, a proposed Senate resolution to remove the fountain altogether died in committee.

Today, the fountain stands not as an object with any practical benefit, but instead as a sort of monument to temperance, a quirky DC landmark, and a memorial of what it once was when it bubbled for its human and equine visitors.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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3 Responses to DC’s Quirky Temperance Fountain

  1. Interesting Post. Apparently Cogswell gave similar fontains to a number of cities. According to James Goode in his reference book, “Washington Sculpture,” the DC fountain for a time was right in right of a liquor store.

  2. Oops! Typo!! strike last 5 words and insert “front of a liquor store.” Sorry about that.:-(

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