The old man and the heron on a Village fountain

JeffersonmarketfountainIs it possible to get tired of looking at the Jefferson Market building on Sixth Avenue and 9th Street in the center of Greenwich Village?

Constructed as a courthouse in 1877 and remodeled into a neighborhood library branch since the 1960s, it holds so many enchanting architectural surprises.

The castle-like exterior features “steeply sloping roofs, gables, pinnacles, Venetian Gothic embellishments, and an intricate tower and clock,” as the AIA Guide to New York City puts it.

Inside are wonderful gems as well: beautiful stained glass windows, lovely woodwork, and a grand spiral staircase.

JeffersonmarketfountainpelicanBut there’s one little treasure located where the building comes together under the clock tower that’s easy to miss.

It’s a small, Gothic-style water fountain with a basin, a lion’s head spout, and two curious reliefs.

One is of a pelican heron amid reeds and grass, a frog snared inside its beak. The second depicts an old man sitting beside a tree.

The old man looks like he’s taking a rest after a long journey. His hat hangs on a branch and his walking cane at his side.


He looks weary, and he’s contemplating something. But who is he?

Tags: , , , , , ,

25 Responses to “The old man and the heron on a Village fountain”

  1. Maria Ricapito Says:

    That’s no pelican… The bill isn’t right. But I’m no ornithologist!

  2. Jason Kessler Says:

    Love the Jefferson (and Ephemeral) but, for the record, that ain’t no pelican. It’s a heron or egret, an important distinction (uh, to SOME!).

  3. Ian schoenherr Says:

    I think the pelican is more likely a crane and the old man may well be Walt Whitman

  4. Beth Says:

    To get even more specific, he bird looks more like a heron or egret, not a crane. You can see both kinds of birds in Central Park and other bodies of water in the area. A pelican has short stubby legs and webbed feet and are on,y occasionally seen around here.

  5. Ian schoenherr Says:

    That sounds better – I’m not so good with birds. And a heron/egret – rather than a crane – would also more likely have that ponytail thingy (as scientists call it) like the bird in the decoration seems to have

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you, a heron does seem more appropriate. And Walt Whitman, interesting….

  7. Joe R Says:

    I would really doubt that the figure is of Walt Whitman. First of all, the building was built as a courthouse. Why put a poet on it’s walls? Secondly, Whitman was still very much alive when this building went up. A quick check shows that he would have been in his late 50s in 1877 – the relief seems of a much older man. Also, I’ve never seen photos of a bald Whitman. He always seemed to have a decent head of hair. My guess is that this an image of some past Justice or philosopher in the study of the Law. There seems to be a flaming lantern at his feet, symbolic perhaps of enlightenment.

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Good eye Joe R; I didn’t recognize the flaming lantern. The man is dressed in what looks like contemporary clothing . . . it’s interesting.

  9. Elizabeth Farinas Rooney Says:

    The clothing is contemporary and those are boots. Do you think it is really 1905? It looks more recent than that. Perhaps the 20’s or 30’s?

    • RD Wolff Says:

      Positive, the old “Shorpy” photo of the building is from 1905 by the Detroit pub co, and the fountain clearly can be seen there, tho the iron railings seen today were much further spread out and angled- it would be easy to get a horse there the way it was in 1905, in fact, on the original 180 mb tiff file the fountain is very clear, and there was no lion head, there was also no faucet as you would expect if it was for humans to drink from, but in the picture crop below, you can see the sidewalk around it has some dark spots and several trash cans can be see on the right, both the dark spots and the several cans suggest to me horses using the fountain;

      • Elizabeth Farinas Rooney Says:

        Thank you it’s wonderful to learn about this. I worked as a library page at the Jefferson Market Branch from 1974-1977,

      • RD Wolff Says:

        Also, if you see the full size 180 mb scan, there are several horses in the view pulling wagons, none of the visible sidewalks appear to have all those dark areas on them- either urine or manure droppings I presume, and one can also see the courthouse had a long metal railing all the way down the 6th ave side and around the corner as well, with vertical stanchions supporting it about every 4 feet or so, as there is no basement drop-off/airshaft area between it and the wall that would require such a railing to prevent people from falling in, it’s only logical purpose is to tie up a large number of horses there while the owners were in court, then the fountain with it’s large granite bowl on the corner makes perfect sense.

        By this 1905 view and possibly the photo being taken on a Sunday or something- the court looks closed- horses were on the way out and there were fewer of them around than in the 1880s.

      • Elizabeth Farinas Rooney Says:

        Again a thousand thank yous. I will tell my other Village friends about this history.

  10. JB Says:

    There are lots of pictures of Whitman almost bald; here’s one:

    There was a statue of him at the 1939 Worlds Fair, wearing similar clothing and boots:

    His reputation for immorality probably would have kept him from being immortalized on a courthouse; but, it’s possible that the architect and/or sculptor were being subversive and hoped that no one would notice the fountain’s details amidst the myriad wonders of the building.

    • Elizabeth Farinas Rooney Says:

      Yes I was going to note that there a lot of pictures of Walt Whitman as a bald man. I live on Long Island , he was friends with Jose Marti- Cuban patriot and when Jose Marti lived in New York City, he would go by horse and buggy to visit Walt Whitman. They had a lot in common and they both were well known poets.

      • Ian schoenherr Says:

        Not to push the Whitman Theory beyond its limits, but – I can’t help it:

        – the man’s collar appears to be open, just as Whitman wore his

        – the head-on-hand pose is also Whitmanesque, as seen in these photos:

        And then there’s his poem “I Sit and Look Out” from Leaves of Grass – which could have been in the mind of the hypothetical “subversive sculptor”:

        “I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame; / I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done; / I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate; / I see the wife misused by her husband – I see the treacherous seducer of young women; / I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid – I see these sights on the earth; / I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny – I see martyrs and prisoners; / I observe a famine at sea – I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest; / I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like; / All these – All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
        See, hear, and am silent.”

        All of this proves nothing, but maybe something more concrete will turn up…

  11. RD Wolff Says:

    The tower originally was used for a large fire bell as I remember, either this tower or a smaller one it replaced.
    Interesting about the fountain, I always had the impression it was added on later, “later” would be before Shorpy’s 1905 picture, like in the 1890s. I believe it was for horse watering since the fountain doesn’t really seem designed for people with a spigot, the lion head would have provided the water into the bowl and such things came about after the ASPCA started working on the problem of horses working in the hot summer streets with no water. When you conside this was a courthouse and that people would arrive with horses and were likely to remain there detained in the courtroom via the schedule for several hours or longer, it made sense to ensure the horses waiting outside in the sun for hours would be provided with a water source- this fountain.

  12. RD Wolff Says:

    Last thought on this, the old man might not BE anyone in particular but could represent and allegorical “father time” and the other carving with the bird and frog representing nature and life, all popular themes in the Victorian era which is why they made so much use of vines, plants, morphed animal/plant forms and fantasy figures.
    The morphed figures such as lion heads coming out of plants, half figures morphing into plants below the waist were related to how the old gods could “call up” “helpers” from the dust, naturally such a figure would be perfect to represent as growing out of the dust as plants do.

    “Father time” comes to mind because of the aged decrepid man with a cane, all of the plants and growing things surrounding him, plus the lantern with fire, and his relaxed posture, with his hat hung up obviously going to be sitting there a while.
    The ferns have a symbolic value, they are not just randomly selected plants thrown in these things, the artists made use of various plants and trees for specific reasons, for example they used the oak leaf and acorns to symbolise strength, they also made large use of laurel and bay leaves in wreaths to symbolize victory or courage.
    The fern contains the wisdom of Mother Earth within its fronds, both literally as a medicinal plant, and figuratively as an ancient symbol. The ancients believed ferns brought rain, protection, luck, prosperity, eternal youth, health, exorcism, confidence and safe shelter, so it is fitting it was used in art of every kind.

    That latern is not a typical “lamp” one would have owned in the 1870s when this was built, they used kerosine lamps and gas lamps, and kerosine or hurricane lamps are still pretty much made today as they were, but this lantern in the carving looks more like an Aladin’s lamp and it has a large flame, this motif was used in various ways symbolically usually to represent enlightenment, light, goodness- any or all of which would be perfect for a COURTHOUSE!

    The other carving with the bird and frog probably represents several things, but the main theme apparent to me is is shows life with the bird, the water based plants, and death by depicting the frog obviously about to be consumed with no hope of escape, again a perfect symbolism for a courthouse of law.

  13. HQ Says:

    Frankly, that fountain is way too small for horses. Other horse watering stations are much bigger.
    And I don’t get the impression they wanted horses walking on and blocking the sidewalk.
    Here’s my guess: Frederick Law Olmsted.
    Besides looking like him, the figure is sitting in nature or a park, amongst rocks and leaves.
    Though it looks like a flaming lantern, there seems to be a stream of water flowing from the rocks, down into this vessel, and continuing past it, into a cup at bottom.
    The architect, Frederick Clarke Withers, was hired by Andrew Jackson Downing and his partner, Calvert Vaux, who was sometimes partnered with Olmsted, like for Central Park, an oasis for the average man… like this fountain.

    • RD Wolff Says:

      Size is not an issue, they could easily have dipped a large ladle or small bucket in it.

      Just one other problem, there’s NO faucet on this for humans to press and drink water from, there is a short pipe projection in the 1905 photo where the bronze lion mask is in modern photos, no one is going to reach all the way to the BACK of that fountain to press a button or lever to get a drink of water! Such faucets are always located on the RIGHT side by the bowl so the people can just bend over slightly and drink.
      The size of that granite bowl is way larger than any human would require for a drinking fountain, it may not be large enough for Belgian draft horses but it is plenty large enough for average horses and even the original iron railings were spaced far enough apart and angled so as to allow plenty of access, that railing has been changed to a narrow path today.

      All those iron railings around there were perfect for tying horses up to, it’s not the least bit decorative or high victorian looking, it served no purpose to prevent someone from falling into a sub-sidewalk air/light space to the basement.
      When you had horses tied up there waiting for their owners at a busy place like a public courthouse there had to be water for the HORSES and the ASPCA was instrumental in getting horse fountains all over the city starting in the 1870s;

      “1870s: ASPCA founder Henry Bergh campaigns against street oversalting, overloading street cars and other cruel practices. Initiates program to provide cool, clean drinking water for horses.

      and even installed horse drinking fountains around the City.

      Also, there is an illustration on a Saturday Evening Post cover from 1914 showing a boy AND a horse drinking from a fountain about the same size, and the water comes from the BACK of the fountain as a continuous stream;

      Human fountains tended to be more like this one, small, with a common metal ladel with a chain;

      Lastly, right there on that corner in the old photo there are several metal cans, at least four and the sidewalk has dark stains all over it around that corner area by the fountain, while you can’t quite see what the dark spots are they sure look like they could be manure, in which case the four metal cans right nearby make perfect sense for cleanup.
      People back then were not squeemish about stepping in manure, that’s what they made those built-in cast iron boot scrapers for that were installed on the stoops by the front doors- to scrap the manure off your boots.
      By this photo in 1905 horses were being replaced by automobiles too, so there would not be as many congregating there, even less if the photo was shot on a day the court was closed in the first place.

      On Olmstead, it would seem somewhat… I can’t think of the term to use but you know what I mean, self serving? rude? to put your OWN image on a public building that tax money paid for! the public tax money would more than likely have been used to put a portrait of someone on a public building such as the Governor, Mayor, President, or someone who donated a huge sum of money and gets the building named after them. Olmstead had a beard like this figure does, but all the pictures I’ve seen of him he has neatly cut short hair on his head, this figure has LONG straggly hair.

  14. RD Wolff Says:

    Here is a scan of the fountain shown in 1905 and now side by side, it becomes clear the railings in 1905 were vastly different than those there today, they were also shorter in height and started at an angle from the corner- leaving a nice wide space around the fountain and easy access to the bowl, which in this 1905 image can be seen projects out considerably- it doesn’t appear to project out much from the canopy in the modern photo due to the angle, but at least half of it’s diameter is out past the canopy.
    In the 1905 view there is no lion head but there appears to be a small dark spot there which suggests a fill pipe, the bowl is clearly empty.
    Looking the photo over, I see almost all windows are shut except for some on the courthouse, and two upper floor windows on another building are partially open, the one tree in view appears to not have leaves, it all suggests this photo was taken in the fall or spring, not summer or winter, so the lack of water in the bowl would not be from danger of freezing but more likely from no longer being in service.

    Where the bronze lion mask is today, in the 1905 photo there appears to be a flat area in that location, as though there once was something more than just a pipe, since there is alion mask there now maybe the original was removed or stolen and replaced some time after the 1905 photo.

  15. antonylevine Says:

    Very strange..yet appealing image. Art is art. So who’s to say if it’s cool or not cool. I like it.

  16. What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: