The Resilience Of Philanthropy: John Hooper’s Legacy And The Restoration Of The Manhattan Fountain

May 25, 2023

In the bustling streets of Harlem, where the rhythm of progress permeates the air, stands a testament to the indomitable spirit of philanthropy.

The Hooper Fountain, named in honor of the civic-minded businessman John Hooper, serves as a poignant reminder of a bygone era when horse-drawn carriages roamed the city’s thoroughfares. Amidst the ebb and flow of history, we unravel the captivating narrative behind this magnificent fountain and the recent efforts to restore its former splendor.

Born with an insatiable curiosity and a penchant for civic duty, John Hooper embarked on a diverse journey that would shape his legacy. After leaving the United States Military Academy (West Point) and working as a civil engineer during the construction of the New York and Erie Railroad, Hooper found his calling in the realm of advertising. Leveraging his connections at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, he established what is believed to be the city’s first advertising agency, catapulting him into the realm of successful entrepreneurship.

Hooper’s ambition and business acumen led him to become a prominent figure in New York City’s business landscape. Serving as the director of the Iron Steamboat Company and president of the Colwell Lead Company and the North River Savings Bank, he amassed extensive real estate holdings in both New York and Brooklyn. A trustee of the Tribune Association and a patron of numerous charitable institutions, Hooper’s philanthropic spirit knew no bounds. In his final act of generosity, he bequeathed $10,000 to the cities of Brooklyn and New York for the construction of two fountains, providing a source of refreshment for both man and beast.

While the inheritance tax and subsequent reduction in funds posed challenges, the vision set forth by Hooper persevered. The Washington Heights Association (just north of Harlem) took charge of laying the fountain’s foundation, and in 1894, the majestic structure materialized on the streets of northern Manhattan. Designed by the esteemed George Martin Huss, the fountain exudes simplicity and elegance, featuring a large round horse trough, a carved pedestal drinking fountain, and a central Ionic column adorned with an ornamental globe-shaped lantern.

In an era when horses played an integral role in urban transportation, fountains and troughs like Hooper’s were essential fixtures along the city’s streets. These sources of respite, often erected by humane societies like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), not only served a practical purpose but also showcased artistic craftsmanship. Sadly, the decline of horse-drawn vehicles during World War II led to the gradual disappearance of these magnificent structures.

Over time, the Hooper Fountain lost its original function and faced the threat of relocation. In 1935, as part of a WPA-funded project, parks officials contemplated moving the fountain to a suitable spot along a bridle path. However, the plan remained unrealized, and the passage of years took a toll on the monument. In 1981, vandals wreaked havoc, toppling the shaft, damaging its capital, and destroying the lantern. Yet, even in its fragmented state, the fountain retained an aura of grandeur.

In recognition of its historical and cultural significance, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission bestowed landmark status upon the Macombs Dam Bridge, 155th Street Viaduct, and Maher Circle, encompassing the Hooper Fountain. This remarkable honor elevated the fountain’s significance, reaffirming its place in the collective memory of the area’s vibrant history.

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