Sculptor Recalls the Birth of Newburyport’s Swan Fountain on the Bartlett Mall

About the Newburyport Swan Fountain by Artist Jeffrey Briggs

In February of 1986, an ice storm of note hit Newburyport.  The Bartlet Mall “Swan Fountain” collapsed and was damaged beyond repair.  I was commission to provide a new sculpture.  But first, a little history about the Pond on Bartlett Mall.

The Pond at the base of the Mall, fondly referred to as the “Frog Pond” by the older citizenry, was originally formed by an ice age glacial depression.  The Promenade known as Bartlet Mall was created in 1800 through the efforts of Captain Edward Bartlet by filling in the ravine.

In 1880, a fountain was placed in the middle of the pond for both form and function.  Part of the purpose was to keep the water constantly flowing in hopes of eradicating the terrible scents emanating from the water.  Landscape architect Charles Eliot developed a plan to improve the common in 1887.  The essential framework of the park and its elements are what you see today.

In 1891, the fountain was replaced as a gift to the city by Edward S. Moseley, Esquire, in memory of his father Ebenezer Moseley.

The cast-iron fountain had a huge “swan” with wings outspread on top.  Out of the mouth of the bird (actually a foundry heron) a stream of water shot out.  The water was meant to be caught by the basin at the bird’s base, then tumbled through spouts around basin’s perimeter into a larger basin beneath.  From there, the water would tumble to the pond below.  The intention was that this larger, more artistic fountain would aerate the water more and improve its quality.

For 95 years, with constant yearly maintenance, the fountain accomplished its purpose.

The 1986 ice storm did significant damage to the century old fountain, so in the spring of 1987, the late Mayor Peter Matthews asked William L. Plante Jr. and Charles P. Morse Jr. to lead a public subscription drive to support the restoration of the fountain.

Notices were placed in The Daily News asking for in-kind donations to the effort.  The City Improvement Society, which had been formed in 1890, for the purpose of assisting in the caring of Bartlet Mall, was reconstituted with Bill Plante and Charles (Pete) Morse as co-chairmen.  Public meetings were announced and I attended one of the first, seeming like an oddity amongst these leading citizens, with my scrubby hair and young hippie look.  They asked me what I wanted to do.  Confidently I announced I wanted to make new bird for top of the fountain.  I also told them that I had access to a fiberglass casting company that I worked closely with and that fiberglass bird would be more durable than cast-iron one.  I told them that my labor in creating this new bird would be my in-kind donation, minus my expenses. There was hesitation in their eyes as they approved my request.  I was asked to work with the project engineer Ken Bowlen to develop a proposal.

By next meeting I had made a conceptual drawing of the birds around what Ken had added to the fountain’s new requirements.

To improve the aeration capacity of the fountain, the amount of water running through it would increase threefold.  A larger volume of water pumped to the fountain would be split into two parts, one delivered to the top basin and other running through the bird.  A small stream shooting from the bird’s mouth would not be enough.  Artistically I could not imagine this amount of water emanating from a bird’s mouth but instead imagined a cluster of birds with the water spraying up amongst them.

The birds would have to be swans, not the original heron, because the fountain was referred to as the Swan Fountain by everyone.

After studying the water flow I decided it would be best to use three swans.  Two would enclose the strong steam and surround the water spout.  The third would reach upward.  This third swan would have outstretched wings reminiscent of the original heron.  Of course the swans would have to be the Mute Swan, the classic of the swan species.  The original heron was black in color.  I decided that this cluster of swans could not be black, because the closest you can view the fountain would be least 100 yards away.  None of the bird’s sculptural details would be able to be seen from that distance unless the birds were lightly colored.  Also mute swans have white plumage and our typical image of swans is white.

The first task was to immerse oneself into the subject matter.

I collected biological information and images of mute swans.  This involved time spent in bookstores, libraries and field trips to lakes and ponds to take pictures of the real thing.  Next I applied this information to create a final scale drawing to the fountain’s dimension.  With the scale drawing in hand I was able to persuade the fiberglass casting company to produce the final swans at cost.  To help the fundraising campaign, I was asked to make renderings of the proposed new fountain top as well as sculpt a model of the swan trio for public display.

Making the prototype, or the original sculpture, of the swans began in the spring of 1989.

With the help of my assistant Kathleen Brooks, a student from Massachusetts College of Art, we made the prototype of plaster applied to a styrofoam, wood, and wire amateur.  The swan prototype would go on display during Yankee Homecoming’s “Old Fashion Sunday” events in mid-summer 1989.  Fabricon Casting Company of Brooklyn, New York would make the mold and casting late-summer that year.  Shepherd’s Auto Body of Newburyport would donate the white epoxy, marine finish to the swans.  A huge crane swung them into place as the final crowning task to the renovation of the Moseley Swan Fountain in November 1989.

In 1988 under the mayor Molin’s administration, the fountain project had increased to encompass the entire pond itself.  The city had applied for state and federal grants amounting to 1.2 million to improve the water quality in the pond, including a pollution control study, dredging and runoff control.  The bottom of the pond would be cleaned.  Three or four feet of muck would be dredged from the pond, in a final attempt at solving the enduring problem of the algae concentrated water of the pond.  The grant program would have picked up 83% of the project’s cost.

The city along with a private charitable group, Citizens to Save the Fountain, would contribute  $150,000 worth of work to the project.  Some of the grant applications were denied, the project was short $300,000.  It was decided not to dredge the pond.  The city would spend $44,000 to alter the drainage to the area so the neighborhood storm sewers would no longer empty into the pond.

In the opinion of some, the elimination of this additional water source intensified the algae content of the pond.  The acidification of the water had increased to such a degree that by 1993 the fountain had to be refurbished.  By 2014, the fountain was back in the condition it was in previous to the refurbishment.  Water quality had reached such a polluted state that by 2016, anyone entering the water would risk their health.  The City and engineers continue to try and solve this environmental issue.

Today, citizens and visitors continue to enjoy Frog Pond from its borders.  Children sled and skate at the Mall in the winter, and all can enjoy its reflective quality and old world charms throughout the year.

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About Jeffrey Briggs

Jeff Briggs received his B.A. from Tufts and his Diploma from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1969. His work has been featured in numerous national publications —– YANKEE MAGAZINE, “WOODWORKING -THE NEW WAVE” by Donna Meilach, FINE WOODWORKING BOOKS 11 & 111 and INTERIOR DESIGN to name a few. His Art Nouveau style sculptures were featured at The Verbena Gallery in NYC. His wood sculptures are prized by collectors throughout the country.

Jeff worked as sculptor and principle designer The Fabricon Carousel Company for over 25 years, creating numerous Grand Carousels currently operating in Singapore, Finland, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia and throughout the USA. In 2006, the Detroit River Conservancy commissioned a carousel for it’s revitalized Riverfront Park in downtown Detroit. Jeff piloted the design and sculpture of this 28 foot carousel with an unusual menagerie. Instead of traditional horses, the animals are all creatures indigenous to the Detroit River area – Egret, Snail, Loon, Frog, Eagle, and Heron etc.

In 2010, Jeff began working on an all new, custom carousel for the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston partnering with a carousel frame company and a fine art painter. Jeff designed and sculpted the entire carousel – all of the carousel creatures and scenery panels. Instead of the traditional horses, this carousel features rideable lobsters, cod fish, harbor seal and a host of other creatures from the land, sea and air that can be seen on or around the Boston Greenway. The Boston Greenway Carousel opened to the public on August 31, 2013.

When not making carousels, Jeff creates sculpted wall reliefs. Thematically, the reliefs explore his thoughts about man’s complex and paradoxical relationship to animals.  His complete set of sculpted wall reliefs can be viewed at: www.briggssculpture.com under “Jeffrey’s Bas Reliefs”. The Messenger is the first of the series of reliefs. A book – ANIMAL ALLEGORIES – showing the entire collection of 14 reliefs is currently available on the Amazon website.  You can learn more at his wonderful website Briggssculpture.com.

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