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Color image of temperance fountain, with the word "Temperance" written on the facing side.
Temperance Fountain. Photo by Sarah Friendman.

“A monstrosity of art”: A Strange D.C. Landmark’s Connection to Congress

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The following is a guest post by Sarah Friedman, a former Presidential Management Fellow with the Public Services Division at the Law Library of Congress. She previously authored The Legal History of the Presidential Management Fellows Program and Hansberry v. Lee: The Supreme Court Case that Influenced the Play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Washington D.C. is famous for instantly recognizable monuments, statues, and fountains, but I especially enjoy looking for offbeat landmarks that are hiding in plain sight. One of these unusual pieces, the Temperance Fountain, sits at the corner of Seventh Street NW and Indiana Avenue. The fountain’s appearance has received heavy criticism over the years, including from one senator who attempted to have it removed in 1945. Despite the criticism, the fountain has remained in place for over a century and can still be visited today.

In 1882, a California dentist named Henry D. Cogswell offered to donate a fountain to the District of Columbia. The Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, described Cogswell as an eccentric millionaire who believed that people would drink less alcohol if they had access to cool drinking water. This led to his effort to offer ornamental fountains, equipped with refrigeration systems, to cities around the country to promote temperance. Cogswell was not an artist, but he designed the ornate fountains himself.

After-dusk color photo of the Temperance Fountain in the foreground and a white building with illuminated windows in the background.
Henry Cogswell’s Temperance Fountain, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Between 1980 and 2006. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Congress needed to approve the fountain’s installation in the District of Columbia, and did so through a House joint resolution (22 Stat. 387) on July 6, 1882. The resolution placed the fountain “under the supervision of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia” and required that they “maintain such lanterns as may be necessary to light the said fountain at night, and also use and supply the refrigerating apparatus connected with said fountain.”

The ornamental design included water spouts in the mouths of two dolphins that sit under a marble canopy topped by a large stork. Two copper cups were chained to the fountain for people to use for drinking, and the wastewater flowed into a trough for dogs to drink from. The four sides of the marble canopy are inscribed with the words faith, hope, charity, and temperance. In the foundation, a refrigerator system held “ice enough for a week’s use” to cool the water. On July 1, 1884, the fountain was stocked with ice and turned on for the first time.

The Commissioners of the District of Columbia did not keep up the fountain and it quickly became a point of contention. An October 3, 1884 article headlined “That dry fountain again” expressed the frustration of the “temperance people,” who were planning to make a formal demand to the commissioners to have the fountain turned back on. If that did not occur, they intended to bring their complaints to Congress. For decades after the fountain was installed, it would sometimes be turned off due to damage and when it was on, there were frequent complaints about the failure to replace the ice in the refrigeration system. After the fountain was repeatedly damaged and repaired, the District’s water department gave up and “that monstrosity at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue” was turned off in the 1930s.

Black and white image of Senator Downey at his desk, looking into the distance, while he holds papers and reading glasses in his hands.
Senator Sheridan Downey, Calif., 1940. Harris & Ewing, photographer. 1940. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, //

In 1945, Senator Sheridan Downey of California launched an effort to remove the fountain, which he described as “a monstrosity of art.” Senator Downey told the Senate he was shocked to see “the fair name of San Francisco emblazoned on it” and took it upon himself to introduce a Senate joint resolution (S. J. Res. 56) to have the Cogswell fountain replaced with “a suitable statue, memorial, or monument” from the state of California. The resolution was unsuccessful and the fountain remained in place.

Although it has endured decades of ridicule, the Temperance Fountain appears to be here to stay. It was added to the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Despite its reputation as “Washington’s ugliest statue,” Cogswell’s Temperance Fountain is a fascinating piece of D.C. and congressional history that is worth visiting if you know where to look.

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  1. Interesting article but also a bit depressing and not terribly surprising, that the government didn’t maintain public infrastructure.

    The “fountain” does not provide water. I wonder if a dry throat on Constitution Ave constitutes standing to sue for upkeep and return to original function of law.

    Anybody know what the original agreement was for that

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