This ornate, baroque-styled marble fountain is named for Robert Ray Hamilton (1851-1890) a prominent businessman, land owner and politician who bequeathed $9,000 to the City for its creation and installation. It is one of the finest and last surviving examples of the decorative horse troughs that once dotted the cityscape.
Hamilton, a great-grandson of statesman Alexander Hamilton, was educated at Columbia Grammar School, College, and Law School. He owed his wealth to properties he owned on the west side of Manhattan, as well as an inheritance that yielded him an annual income of $40,000—a sizable sum at the time. Though defeated when he ran in 1879 for a seat on the Board of Alderman, the following year he was elected to the State Assembly, from the Eleventh District, subsequently defeated and then reelected to several terms from 1885 to 1889. Not long before his death in a hunting accident, he was involved in a public scandal involving Eva Mann, whom he had secretly married, and who had used this alliance to raid his substantial financial holdings.
After Hamilton's death, executors of his estate and the City retained the esteemed architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore—whose more notable buildings include Grand Central Terminal, Chelsea Piers, and the Con Edison Tower—to design the fountain. An
initial rendering, more limited in scope, was rejected by the City's Art Commission, before the present design with its central eagle feature was approved and realized.
Crafted from Tennessee marble, the lavishly carved fountain, composed of separate masonry units, is surmounted by an eagle with wings spread, beneath which are decorative motifs, a coat of arms, a dolphins' head spray feature, a shell-shaped spill basin, and a larger foliate catch basin. There is an upward-facing incised commemorative inscription, worn by time, on the front perimeter of the basin. The fountain stands at the center of a sidewalk plaza and is inserted into the 19th-century rustic retaining wall of the earliest portions of Riverside Park.
Created for "man and beast," the fountain was evidently intended primarily as a drinking fountain for horses, and was erected during an era when the streets of Manhattan were frequented by thousands of horses on a daily basis, and equine transport was the principal means of conveying goods and people around the city. To satisfy the horses' thirst, numerous watering fountains and troughs were installed along the city's streets. Many were erected by humane societies such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). In addition to fulfilling a necessary function of preserving the health of beasts of burden,
these roadside fountains often exhibited a great degree of artistry in their design and ornamentation.
The decline of horse-drawn commercial vehicles resulted in the virtual elimination of these fountains by World War II. While the Hamilton Fountain survived, it fell into disrepair, was vandalized, and its plumbing ceased to function. For a period neighborhood volunteers maintained aquatic plants in the still water of the basin, and even koi swam here. In 2009 private donations to the Riverside Park Fund made possible the restoration of the fountain, including conservation of the ornamentation, installation of new electrical and plumbing service, repaving of the plaza with hexagonal blocks, and planting four serviceberry trees (Amelanchier spp.). The Riverside Park Fund has also established a maintenance fund to provide for the ongoing care of this significant historic monument.