December 11, 2008, 9:30 am
In Riverside Park, a Horse Trough and a Scandal
By David W. Dunlap
Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, and Jonathan Kuhn, the director of art and antiquities in the Department of Parks and Recreation, inspecting the dig in Riverside Park, at 76th Street, that yielded a 102-year-old marble horse trough. (Photos: David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)
The streets were not paved with gold, but the horses drank from marble. An impromptu archaeological dig in Riverside Park has cast light on a time when horses — not horsepower — moved New York. And when charitable impulses included the financing of water troughs throughout the city, sometimes on a monumental scale.
Digging deeply last month into an earthen embankment at the base of the fortresslike retaining wall along Riverside Drive, at the foot of 76th Street, city park workers discovered a broad drinking basin made of Tennessee pink marble set into the wall. It had been installed in 1906 for the comfort of horses traveling through the park, when the ground level in that spot was about 10 to 12 feet lower than it is today.
The inner surface of the marble basin, buried under four feet of earth, can be seen in this photo, as can the sluice down which water ran to the trough.
The dig also cast light on an intriguing figure of 19th-century New York, Robert Ray Hamilton, a once-rising politician with one of the most distinguished names in American history (he was Alexander’s great-grandson) whose scandal-mired downfall could practically have been torn from contemporary headlines. Or blog posts.
The Times reported in 1890:
Until he became the victim of an adventuress, the career of Robert Ray Hamilton was bright with every promise that wealth, influence and opportunity could bring to a man of his decided taste for political life, and who had already made his mark as a member of the legislature.On a hunting trip in Yellowstone National Park a year later, Hamilton drowned in the Snake River. John D. Sargent, Hamilton’s best friend, with whom he shared a cottage in Jackson, Wyo., said the victim had tried to ford the river at night and tangled his spurs in river grass. But it was not long before Sargent was suspected as a murderer. In 1913, he shot himself to death.
After the adjournment of last year’s legislature, nothing was heard of Mr. Hamilton until suddenly in August 1889, his friends were shocked by the revelations of his connection with the woman Eva Mann, through a vicious assault committed by the woman in the Nell Cottage, Atlantic City, on her maid, Mary Donnelly. Gradually the whole truth came out that Eva Mann, a notorious woman, was his wife; that she had palmed off on him a foundling as his child; and that he had been her dupe for years.
The horse trough forms the lower part of this richly ornamented fountain facing Riverside Drive, a posthumous gift of Robert Ray Hamilton.
After Hamilton’s death, it was revealed that he had directed his executors to spend about $10,000 for a fountain to be presented to the city. The Times said his wish was that the fountain be “so arranged that it can be used by the thirsty as well as serving an ornamental purpose.” Warren & Wetmore, the architects involved in Grand Central Terminal, designed the Hamilton Fountain, which was dedicated in 1906.
It is about to undergo a $150,000 restoration (with a small maintenance endowment), financed by the Riverside Park Fund. Among other things, the beak of the eagle, which has been lopped off repeatedly by vandals, will be replaced. James T. Dowell, the president of the fund, said the money had been raised largely from the immediate neighborhood. The biggest single gift, $75,000, came from a family that was “adamant about being anonymous,” he said. Margaret Bracken is the landscape architect in charge of the project.
Historical photographs compiled for the restoration disclosed that the fountain, long thought to consist only of the ornamented basin facing the drive, once fed down a sluice carved in the back of the wall down to a lower basin that would have served as a horse trough. A later embankment buried any visible evidence.
A 1935 photograph clearly shows the marble basin below the Hamilton Fountain. (Photo: Alajos Schuszler/New York City Parks Photo Archive)
“This is what made us think there was something down below,” said Jonathan Kuhn, the director of arts and antiquities in the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Last month, park workers reluctantly started to dig out the spot. Their reluctance only grew as the depth of the hole did: one feet, two feet, three feet. Finally, about three and a half feet down, they hit marble.
“You’d think they’d found the Elgin marbles,” said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, on a visit to the site on Dec. 1.
That said, however, he seemed to fall captive to the spell cast by the hidden basin, summoning up a vision of life in the early 1900s when horses and railroad trains shared the Hudson shoreline. He said the basin might be excavated and reused elsewhere, perhaps as a dog fountain.
Or perhaps, he said, it will be amply documented and then simply left in place. That would allow another parks commissioner in another era to find it again, and to rediscover the sorry story of Robert Ray Hamilton.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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