Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Forever Lost in Forest Park, Part 2

The Stone Dog

A Dog-napping Mystery

Will Forest Park’s granite golden retriever ever get retrieved? The beloved Stone Dog, which stood guard at the old playground next to the swimming pool when I was a kid, was a park favorite. A visit to the playground wasn’t complete without sitting on the dog’s back and then jumping off its head.

The dog was moved to the far side of the Rose Garden when Cyr Arena was built on the playground site in 1973, and then it was carted to the maintenance area behind the park’s administration building in the summer of 1987 when the new zoo was being built. It was confirmed missing in January of 1988. No, the dog didn’t just get up, yawn, stretch its legs and back, and walk away. Somebody took it. That somebody needs to give it back.

Stealing a dog is bad enough, but kidnapping the elderly is a new low: that dog, believe it or not, is 122 years old. It first served as the sentinel of a fountain on the triangle at the corner of Pine and Mill Streets. According to a story in the Springfield Union of January 12, 1934, kids “used to climb on its back and dangle their feet in the cool waters of the fountain. The dog spouted water from its mouth and the children soon discovered that by sticking their fingers in its mouth they could squirt water all over themselves and passers-by. That side of the junction came to be avoided by pedestrians.”

When the fountain was taken out in 1909, the Stone Dog was moved to the original zoo at Forest Park. Later, it disappeared for the first time, but Superintendent of Parks Theodor R. Geisel, father of author Theodor S. Geisel (“Dr. Suess”), found the pooch among “odds and ends” at the park in the 1930s and placed it near the paddle pond, which was adjacent to the Rustic Pavilion. The pond was drained after a polio outbreak, nonetheless that area of the park remained well visited because of the installation of a playground, a swimming pool and a snack bar. I remember the Stone Dog being so popular that there was often a line of kids waiting to sit on the dog’s back, and it was the subject of many photos.

The Stone Dog was even immortalized in verse, described in the 1933 book Peggy in the Park, written by Dr. William G. Ballantine, a biblical scholar at Springfield College.

Although the Stone Dog in the book, illustrated by A.B. Tufts, doesn’t look EXACTLY like the actual Stone Dog, we can reasonably deduce that he was writing about the one in the same because he was writing about Forest Park. The bear cage in the book is an exact replica of the old bear cage in Forest Park:

The second disappearance of the Stone Dog, in 1987, was met with much outrcry. In the late 1980s there were two men who were relentlessly investigating its disappearance: Edward J. Moriarty, deputy superintendent of parks, and Springfield Police Detective Alvin T. Correira. “We asked the construction people who were there, as well as our employees, and nobody had any ideas,” said Moriarty. “We tried every avenue.” He doubted that anyone could “walk off” with the dog without using a vehicle, given its weight and size: weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds, and about four feet long, two feet wide, two-and-a-half feet high. He says it was in a fenced in area, but didn’t know if it was locked when the dog was stolen.

Correira believed that the dog wasn’t simply thrown in a car. “Some equipment was used to move it, he said. “We've talked to those people who were involved in the moving and handling of it, and we have a lot of names, and a lot of people shrugging their shoulders.”

Moriarty and Correira have since died, but others haven’t forgotten about the dog, including Philip J. Mantoni, a park commissioner, and attorney Edward Friedman, both offering a $150 reward for the statue’s return in 1988. Firefighter Kevin Welz was one of the first to inquire about the absconded Stone Dog after his five-year-old daughter asked, “Where’s the doggy?”

The Facebook page “You know you’re from the X when…” has recently taken up the cause, with “fans” posting photos of the Stone Dog and demanding his whereabouts.

There was a possible lead in last November when a person named Jessica posted on a Springfield history site that her grandmother “swears she saw it in front of a hospital in Hartford with the fountain hole and all.”

Nothing yet has developed over this potential sighting—an observation that could be significant because of the “fountain hole.” Water had squirted out of the dog’s mouth when it was part of a fountain, so this could be the real McCoy.

Nonetheless, the only known dog statue anywhere near Hartford is the husky statue outside of Gampel Pavilion in Storrs:

Could the theft have been an inside job carried out by Park Department employees? These workers would have had access to the heavy equipment necessary to do the dastardly deed. Feeding this kind of speculation among some Springfield residents is that for years there have been rumors of employees stripping the Barney Carriage House of valuable antique brackets and moldings before the structure was renovated—at one time the first floor was used by the Park Department for offices. Indeed, it was also rumored that the original Barney Mansion, which was turned into a museum, was looted of its artwork and antiques by city workers before it was torn down to make way for Interstate 91.

Above: the Barney Carriage House

Above: the Barney Mansionpillaged and then demolished

If you believe these rumors are unfounded, think about the strange and terrible saga of the turtles in the turtle fountain in Stearns Square. The fountain, designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1881, consists of a large bronze globe topped by two intertwined fish flanked by four snapping turtles (now absent) that represented north, south, east, and west.

At one time the two fish and all four turtles spouted water. The turtles inspired a famous book by Springfield native Dr. Seuss: Yertle the Turtle.

Variations of the fountain’s round basin, the two-fish combo, and squirting fish theme can also be seen in The King’s Stilts, also by Dr. Suess, especially the lower photo of a fish on a sphere:

The two fish on the fountain are also said to inspire the two fish in Dr. Suess’ One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish:

Given the literary history of the fountain, as well as its age and the fame of the sculptor, it’s not surprising that the turtles would be a target for theft—especially since they’re much more portable than a half-ton granite dog. In fact, the bronze turtles have been purloined several times over the years. What IS interesting, however, is that when the first time one of them was stolen, in 1972, it was taken from a Park Department storehouse, according to an Associated Press story from May 14, 1975:

Do you see a pattern developing here? Prior to this theft, the fountain had been moved from Stearns Square to Forest Park and placed at an obscure duck pond behind the old zoo’s monkey house. When more room was needed for Morganetta the elephant, the fountain was placed in storage. Then, in 1972, POOF! The turtle vaporized from the storehouse. Fortunately, it turned up at an auction in Agawam, where it was being sold for $150.

When citizens noticed one of the turtles missing in 1993, a Park Department official assured the public that it was removed to prevent theft after there was a problem with the water pipe under it. An official said the turtle “is under lock and key at the Park Department.” Whew! Good thing it was “secure.”

In 1994, a turtle from the fountain was stolen and recovered after it was being offered for $1,250 at an antique shop in Palmer.

I’m not asserting that the turtle thefts were perpetrated by city employees. I’m merely pointing out the whereabouts of the turtle in 1972 theft: a Park Department storehouse. Just sayin’.

Where are the turtles now? Beats me. In Tommy Devine’s blog he noticed the fountain was not only bereft of terrapins in 1997, but it was also a cruddy mess:

“Rainwater had gathered in the fountain basin and papers and McDonald’s soda cups and beer cans were floating in it,” wrote Devine 14 years ago.

Visiting the Stearns Square park in the fall of 2011, months after the area’s outdoor concerts have ended, is a truly depressing experience. I was there the other day and snapped several photos, including one of a leaf-filled mud-hole where the water used to pool:

The base for one of the turtles is below. Maybe the creatures wandered over to the Mardi Gras, where their bronze shells can protect them from gunfire. One thing Springfield is skilled at preserving is its precious strip club industry.

One of the missing turtles is pictured in this old photograph:

The turtles on both sides of the sphere are gone too. Note the knob in the foreground of the fountain shell, where one of the turtles should be:

There should be turtles in this sucker spraying water, as this computer generated model of the original 1881 park below dramatizes, providing “white sound to filter out the noise of the city.”

The stripped version of Stearns Square fountain really bugs me. But hell, after all, sometimes antique items under the charge of the Park Department get “misplaced.” Take, for example, the brass light fixtures that were removed from both sides of both entrances to the Springfield Juvenile Court and the Housing Court. Undated photos shows at least two of them accounted for:

But then one vanished:

Now both are gone from the main entrance:

At least one of them was missing when this photo was taken after a bomb threat on July 22, 2009:

In July of 2011, an official of the Park Department (now the Department of Parks, Facilities, and Recreational Management) explained to The Republican newspaper that he was told the light fixtures are in the basement at the Housing Court. However, a Housing Court official said he thought the city had removed them several years ago and moved them elsewhere.

Memo to the city of Springfield: where the hell are those light fixtures?

Well? We’re waiting!

Once again, I digress. Never mind the light fixtures. I’m sure they’ll turn up—at the Brimfield Antiques Show. But where the hell is the Stone Dog? In February 2011 the city said that it hoped to be able to recreate the statue, based on old photos, in time for the 130th anniversary of Forest Park “later this year.”

Now it’s December.

A new Stone Dog would be great. Having the old Stone Dog would be even better. In 1988, the first and second grade classes at the Sumner Avenue School made picture books and posters about the Stone Dog’s disappearance and sent them to Mayor Richard Neal, who is now Congressman Richard Neal. One six-year-old, Kati Otero, theorized that a robber with “a lot of tools came” and “stole the dog.”

Maybe Neal now has more clout in finding the Stone Dog. Isn’t dog-napping a federal offense? “If you can’t find it,” Otero wrote to Neal, “you’ll need to keep looking.”

It might just take a U.S. Congressman’s efforts to recover the Stone Dog, because below is the City of Springfield’s official response to its missing antiques: