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Monument of the Month: Evangeline Blashfield Fountain

Thirty years ago, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) launched the Adopt-A-Monument program in collaboration with the NYC Public Design Commission and the NYC Parks Department, to secure private funding for the rescue of public art in danger of deterioration. To date, MAS’s Adopt programs have raised nearly $4 million dollars to conserve fifty-one works of art in all five boroughs. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the program, we are highlighting one restoration per month in 2017. In this final month of our celebration, and with MAS’s 125th anniversary coming up in 2018, we are looking at a work of public art of particular importance to MAS and its founding.

The restored Evangeline Blashfield Fountain with the Queensboro Bridge in the background

The restored Evangeline Blashfield Fountain with the Queensboro Bridge in the background. Photo: The Municipal Art Society of New York.

The Evangeline Blashfield Fountain was once the centerpiece of a great public market beneath the Queensboro Bridge Market in the early twentieth century, but it was long hidden from view until restored under the aegis of MAS’s Adopt-A-Monument program. The perilous life of this handsome civic amenity is a saga that stretches nearly nine decades.

The Queensboro Bridge, built in 1908 by the architect Henry Hornbostal and engineer Gustuv Lindenthal, spans the East River, linking Manhattan with farmlands in Queens. By 1916 one of the city’s most prosperous plein-air farmer’s markets developed alongside the bridge. As a result of its success, and as part of a campaign to get pushcarts off the street, the main section underneath the bridge, with its soaring Catalan vaulted tile ceiling pioneered by the émigré Spanish architect, Rafael Gustavino, was glazed, converting it to a year-round market facility.

tiles from the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain before restoration

Before restoration. Photo: Wilson Conservation.

Evangeline Blashfield (1857-1918), the remarkable woman who, in 1917, conceived and paid for the fountain to supply market vendors and their horses with water, was a founder of MAS and the first woman on its board of directors. Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country.

“She became successful in impressing upon some people of the markets her conviction, based upon her experiences in Italy and the East, that a market place with its necessary fountain, its stalls sheltered by gay awnings, its gold and silver melons and grapes and vegetables afforded almost a ready-made opportunity for those who would create a civic center. She said to the vendors, ‘painters have no pigment for making pictures that can compete with your lemons and oranges and bananas and grapes, your tomatoes, even your onions.’ She urged that a fountain should be set up in the Queensboro Market.” (The New York historical Society, Edward Howland Blashfield Papers)

The fountain’s design includes the glass mosaic of the allegorical figure of Abundance by Mrs. Blashfield’s husband, the prominent artist and also a founding member of MAS, Edwin H. Blashfield (1848-1936). Evangeline was the model for the image. The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace. The mosaic was mounted within a granite stele, positioned above a basin filled with water that flows from the mouth of an ox head sculpted by Eli Harvey. Charles Stoughton, another MAS member, created the architectural setting.

On May 13, 1919, MAS dedicated the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain and presented it as a gift to the city in honor of this champion of public art, who had died six months before the fountain’s completion.

Jackie Wilson, Chief Conservator, with her team working on the restoration of the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain

Jackie Wilson (second from right), Chief Conservator, with her team working on the restoration of the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain. Photo: Wilson Conservation.

Sometime in the 1930s, the market under the bridge closed because of health reasons, pressure from retail owners, state and city efforts to establish wholesale food markets, and the burgeoning of the railways as food distributors. From this point until the 1970s, the space served the city’s Department of Transportation as a sign-painting shop, a storage depot for road signs and police barricades, and a garage for sanitation trucks.

In 1974, the Queensboro Bridge and the large “cathedral” area below were granted landmark status and a proposal for development under the bridge, including two farmer market sheds, was approved in 1977. However, a series of false starts in construction, litigation, and bridge repairs stalled the project for most of the 1980s. In 1990, the threat of a private sale nearly removed the fragile mosaic from the public realm. It was saved by the city and MAS’s efforts and relocated to a more secure repository on Randall’s Island.

Finally in 1999, Bridgemarket opened with three commercial tenants. Hugh Hardy, revered MAS trustee and acclaimed architect, was responsible for the restoration and adoptive reuse of this historic structure. Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business. The artwork, severely damaged after years of neglect and an earlier unsuccessful conservation attempt, was taken to a studio where it was painstakingly conserved by Wilson Conservation from 2001-2003.

Close up of the mosaic and a restorer's hands cutting replacement tiles for the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain

The mosaic undergoing restoration. Photo: Wilson Conservation.

On June 3, 2003, the restored mosaic, was returned to Bridgemarket, installed within is proper granite setting relocated on the east end of the new Bridgemarket public plaza, at 59th Street and First Avenue, and rededicated.

The Wilson Conservation team, of six talented women led by Jackie Wilson, drew inspiration from the captivating personality of Evangeline during their work on the restoration of the mosaic. Much like the Blashfields, who, as husband and wife complemented each other in their artistic pursuits, Cameron Wilson was responsible for the conservation of the stone elements and the installation of the mosaic. The process was delicate and laborious beginning with the removal of the old armature and the inappropriate plaster bedding used to stabilize the mosaic in the 1980s. The plaster on the face of the mural was excavated from the joints of the tesserae with small scalpels and dental tools. (A tessera is an individual tile, a small piece of stone, glass, ceramic or other hard material cut in some regular shape, used in creating a mosaic.) While a third of the original multi-shaped and opaque glass tesserae could be saved, nearly a thousand replacement pieces were necessary. The glass was in the tradition of American-made Tiffany glass, much in vogue at the time. Other parts of the mosaic, notably the face and flesh-colored details, consisted of painted tiles rather than glass, and in many cases the paint had been peeled away. New tiles were commissioned where needed and carefully integrated into the design.

Cameron Wilson with assistants, installing the restored mosaic within the granite frame of the fountain

Cameron Wilson (center), with assistants, installing the restored mosaic within the granite frame of the fountain. Photo: Wilson Conservation.

Each new piece of glass was fashioned from a template created by tracing the hollow area. The glass was hand-cut from this shape and matched to the subtle color variation of the adjacent tile. Because of limited photographic and archival documentation about the mosaic, the conservators had to use creative interpretation in reconstructing the areas of greatest loss, including the large vertical edges and the arched lower section of the mosaic.

Following the conservation of the mosaic, the glass panel was set in a lightweight aluminum honeycomb panel designed to support it and a stainless steel frame to encase it. This was attached to a larger steel frame bolted inside the opening of the granite stele. The last step in reclaiming the Blashfield Fountain was to repair the damaged granite ox’s head and clean the stone framework. Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century.