The Healing Angel of Central Park

By Sara Cedar Miller

Unbeknownst to the Fitzgerald family of 75 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, Sunday, June 25, 1832, was to be their last day of health and happiness together. The next day Mr. Fitzgerald suddenly took gravely ill and – although he miraculously survived – by Friday, his two young children, Jeremiah, and Margaret, and his wife Mary were all dead. The recent Irish immigrants were New York City’s first victims of Asiatic cholera (the bacterium Vibrio cholerae). It was a horrifying and virulent disease of Biblical proportions that had already killed millions worldwide, and in just two months would take the lives of over 3,500 New Yorkers.

The dehydrated victims cried out for cold water. “Cold water, cold water, give us cold water” was heard as the sufferers died only hours after their first symptoms had appeared. The cause of the disease, polluted drinking water, would only be discovered by British physician John Snow in 1854, but New Yorkers had worried about their unhealthy water system for over a century.

Bottled spring water is not a recent phenomenon. Those who could afford it protected themselves by receiving daily water deliveries from upstate and northern Manhattan’s natural springs. During the crisis, people fled the city in great numbers, uncertain of the cause of the disease. Less than two weeks from the first cholera outbreak, over a hundred thousand New Yorkers – roughly half the population of the city – departed in a mass exodus. As during the yellow fever scares in 1795, 1799, and 1803, many New Yorkers moved to the low-density “suburbs” of Greenwich Village, Bloomingdale (the Upper West Side), Yorkville (the Upper East Side), and Harlem, or traveled further upstate. Philip Hone, future mayor of New York and famous diarist, decided to remain in his country home “until the destroying angel has sheathed his sword and our citizens have returned to their homes.” The wealthy Stebbins family fled, too, most likely to their country place in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The household survived the 1832 outbreak but cholera returned repeatedly to ravage the country. Their son and brother John Wilson Stebbins succumbed to the disease five years later in New Orleans.

places_fallenangel_pic1a.pngWhen his sister, Emma Stebbins, was awarded the commission for Central Park’s main fountain in 1864 – her older brother Henry Stebbins was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners – she chose to memorialize their brother John and celebrate the Croton water system that had contributed to diminishing cholera outbreaks in New York City. Instead of Hone’s fearful “destroying angel,” Stebbins chose to portray the Biblical healing angel who had appeared at Jerusalem’s natural pools of Bethesda, according to the New Testament Gospel of John. Unveiled on May 31, 1873, Stebbins’ Angel of the Waters fountain celebrated “the blessed gift of pure, wholesome water that to all the countless homes of this great city comes like an angel visitant, not at stated seasons only, but day by day.” The angel faces south, but the artist of the above lithograph drew her initially, looking north towards the water’s sources, the Croton River in Westchester County and the Park’s park’s two reservoirs: the first on the site of today’s Great Lawn and the second just north of the 86th Street Transverse Road.

From the day of its unveiling, Bethesda Fountain, as it came to be known, became the heart of Central Park and one of its most beloved attractions. But by the 1970s, the bronze of Stebbins’s Angel was severely corroded, its basin covered in graffiti, its antiquated plumbing inoperable, and its inspirational symbolism long forgotten. Due to depleted funds and improper management of the landscapes, bridges, structures, and sculptures, Central Park had become a crumbling and eroded ruin.

places_fallenangel_pic3a.pngJust forty years ago, two small but dedicated advocacy groups joined together to form the Central Park Conservancy. The mission was urgent: to help Central Park through the generosity of private citizens in partnership with the City of New York. The innovative and hopeful public-private partnership slowly began its important work to restore and maintain Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s masterpiece. When the park was so desperately in need of a healing angel, the newly-formed Conservancy chose Bethesda Fountain as its logo.

Today another frightening pandemic recalls the one that inspired Stebbins to honor her brother and celebrate the pure and healthy water that flowed beneath the angel’s feet. In these trouble times, the park’s magnificent centerpiece stands as a symbol of the park itself, a healing refuge for millions of New Yorkers, just as the artist wrote: “not at stated seasons only, but day by day.”