People who like synchonicity and coincidences, as I do, call it the work of the “library angel” when a book or a newspaper article with answers appears (without using an internet search engine…) soon after you start pondering questions about a certain subject. It’s a cosmic search engine.
On Monday, I was looking through my stash of tens of thousands of digital photographs to find some for postcard designs. I found the one above, which I originally took because I wanted photographs of bird couples. (Awww…) But on Monday, I start wondering about the origin of the fascinating sculpture behind the ducks. On Tuesday, the following story appeared in my local newspaper. Holy Moly! Boy, did I get an answer to my question.
The most photographed fountain in The City of Fountains has for half a century harbored a secret within its gushing waters.
The J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain near the Country Club Plaza is the backdrop for countless weddings, protests and vacation snapshots. Figures on horseback dramatically do battle with creatures below while between them children ride monstrous fishes with mouths agape.
But look closely at the fish and figures in the northeast quadrant of the fountain.
There isn’t as much detail in the scales. There’s just something different.
It’s the mystery of the “fourth dolphin.”
The particular 500-pound piece of cast bronze now in the fountain was not born along with the other figures. It is an imitation that has gone unnoticed by the public all these years. Even current parks officials were unaware.
I pushed between tables of diners on the balcony of Figlio's Restaurant to get this view of the J.C. Nichols Fountain.
Until they received a call from a man in Florida who said, “I gather I have one of your missing statues.”
And so begins the latest chapter in the disappearance and now surprising rediscovery of the fourth dolphin.
The Nichols fountain had a previous life before it appeared at 47th Street and J.C. Nichols Parkway. It was created in 1910 by French sculptor Henri Greber, who was commissioned by the first wife of Stanley Mackay, president of the Postal Telegraph Co.
The Mackays were fabulously rich, and the fountain was a centerpiece of their Harbor Hill estate in Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island. A coffee table book about the estate has a photo of the fountain illuminated for a party for Charles Lindbergh upon his return from his famous solo Atlantic flight in 1927.
But the Depression hit, Mackay died of cancer in 1938 and the estate deteriorated. Many of the nine bronze pieces that had made up the fountain became victims of vandals or thieves.
But one piece that was undamaged caught the eye of Marjorie Singer, a fashion designer who lived with her husband, Morton, in nearby Greenvale, N.Y. It was of a fish or dolphin with a little boy on its back, a rope in his hand, and a little girl hanging on alongside them. Singer ran into Mackay’s son and asked him if the piece was for sale.
“My mother fell in love with it,” said her son, Steve Singer. “They didn’t have any money. I think she said, ‘I’ll give you $25’ and laughed.”
But a couple of days later Mackay’s son agreed.
Meanwhile, Jesse Clyde Nichols had been transforming Kansas City by creating graceful neighborhoods and boulevards in and around the Country Club District and on the Kansas side. After Nichols died in 1950 his family wanted to create a memorial to him.
Son Miller Nichols worked with an art broker in New York called French & Co., which told him about the Greber pieces from the Mackay estate. The Nichols family acquired the pieces, which were valued at $250,000 in 1957, and the Kansas City park board agreed to help pay for a fountain in Mill Creek Park.
Newspaper clippings and park records show the bronzes were missing a head here and a leg there. But the public record does not make it clear that one entire piece of the original nine sculptures was missing.
Miller Nichols hired architectural modeler Herman Frederick Simon, who had done the bronze doors for Kansas City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse, to make models of all of the missing parts as best he could. The Bruno Bearzi foundry in Florence, Italy, was hired to cast the bronze replacements.
They were incorporated into the originals, and the fountain was dedicated in May 1960 before nearly 1,000 people.
“After the replacement was created and the whole thing was assembled and put into the fountain in 1960 it was finished and nobody really thought about it again,” said Jocelyn Ball-Edson, a landscape architect for the Kansas City park department.
Until June 2008 when Steve Singer called out of the blue.
He grew up with the fish sculpture, which had adorned the driveway or patio of his parents’ various homes over six decades. His own daughters played on it. Eventually the elder Singers retired to Delray, Fla., where they died in recent years. As Steve Singer prepared to sell his parents’ home he realized he didn’t have room for the sculpture, which is about 5 feet long and 3 feet high.
Singer found the artist’s signature near the base of the piece and Googled it. One of the first hits under Henri Greber is the J.C. Nichols fountain in Kansas City. Singer was surprised to see it because his family had always assumed the rest of the fountain pieces had been destroyed. Singer now thought it would be appropriate for his piece to be reunited with the others. So he contacted the city. Research and negotiations began.
Kay Callison, granddaughter of J.C. Nichols and daughter of Miller Nichols, located a document among the Nichols company papers in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection titled “Cost of Fourth Dolphin and Children.” It establishes that the missing piece was among those that had to be reproduced. The job cost $2,417.40 including freight and customs.
“I knew there were parts and repairs, but I never knew there was an entire sculpture itself that was not original,” Callison said.
Ball-Edson went to view the sculpture in Florida and found that it was in sound condition, other than some corrosion.
“We’d already decided that we needed to purchase it,” Ball-Edson said. “It was just such an excellent opportunity that the park department concluded it would be a shame for it to go somewhere else.”
An appraiser for Christie’s auction house had told Singer the piece might fetch $25,000 to $35,000. Parks officials agreed to buy it for $28,000, which they hope to recoup through donations. The sculpture was crated up and shipped to Kansas City in May. It now sits in a city garage. “I think it’s very exciting,” Callison said. “I’m thrilled that the park department was able to secure it.”
The replacement piece, which by now has been part of the fountain longer than the original ever was, is a fine work in its own right and will be retained by the park department. It likely will be displayed somewhere else.
Officials hope to raise funds to do some repair and cleaning work on the rest of the J.C. Nichols fountain and to celebrate the return of the “fourth dolphin” on Fountain Day next April, when the city’s fountains are turned on for the season.
Singer said he hopes to be able to attend.
“I’m glad it’s going where it’s going,” he said, “and hope people will appreciate it.”
What does the fountain mean?
No one really knows what the figures in the J.C. Nichols fountain are supposed to represent. But Laurence Sickman, a former director of the Nelson Gallery, once speculated that the 10-foot-tall horse and rider figures are meant to be an allegory of four great rivers. The Indian battling an alligator could represent the Mississippi and the figure slaying a bear could represent the Volga while the other two could signify the Seine and the Rhine.
The children riding fish or dolphins were common fountain themes and need not represent anything, Sickman said. But Ann McFerrin, archivist for the park department, recently speculated that the boy seems to be glowering at the fish as if he is rescuing the girl.
“She doesn’t look very happy,” McFerrin said. “The fish doesn’t look very happy, either.”
Contributions toward the restoration of the Nichols fountain may be made to the J.C. Nichols Fountain Fund and sent to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, 4600 E. 63rd St., Kansas City MO 64130.
Arthur Koestler’s “The Roots of Coincidence.”
The Meaning of Synchronicity.