Welcome to “Up on a Pedestal!” I am delighted to bring you periodic tales of bronze and stone. This is the first in the series.
One of New Orleans’ finest sculptors, Enrique Alfèrez, was born in 1901 in San Miguel de Mezquital Zacatecas, Mexico. He came to the United States in the 1920s, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and eventually moved to New Orleans in 1929. While in New Orleans, Alfèrez received numerous private and public art commissions, as well as heading the sculpture program for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program created to execute public works projects. Alfèrez died in 1999 at the age of 98.
Greeting you at the entrance to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport is Alfèrez’s “Fountain of the Four Winds.” Formerly Shushan Airport, one of the leading commercial airports in the 1930s, the airport now services private, corporate, military, and commercial aircraft.
When Shushan airport opened in 1933, there were two hangars: the Moffet Hangar to the west and the Lindbergh Hangar to the east. To the west is where the Fountain was installed, and to the east (where a parking lot now sits) an Olympic-size swimming pool. According to Braydon Matthews of the Friends of New Orleans Lakefront Airport, the pool was where the airport “housed a water suppression system,” as there was no other water available in case of an emergency.
Installed circa 1936-37, the elliptical “Fountain of the Four Winds” is one of Alfèrez’s most controversial sculptures. Standing 9 feet tall and made of cast stone, three nude female figures and one nude male figure comprise the fountain. Each figure represents one of the four directional winds: north, south, east and west. Each of the kneeling figures holds a different object. Originally, the fountain had underwater lights. The outside rim of the fountain is decorated with eight falcons facing toward the center, as well as reliefs of birds and clouds. The male figure, facing north, is conspicuously endowed, a detail which became the subject of some controversy. Alfèrez at the time threatened to shoot anyone who interfered with the sculpture, even standing guard with a rifle at night to deter vandalism. Eleanor Roosevelt came to his defense and the scandal subsided. Two years after the installation, the Levee Board erected a concrete hemisphere in the center of the four figures.
In 1991, with a $20,000 appropriation from the Orleans Levee Board, Alfèrez restored the Fountain. At this time, Alfèrez oversaw the demolition of the concrete hemisphere, filled cracks on the eagle sculptures, “put stitches” on the male figure’s chopped off genitalia and stripped dozens of coats of paint that amateurs added over the years in attempt to enhance the figures.
A fence now surrounds the fountain to protect it from any vandalism, and the fountain is in need of repair. The Friends of New Orleans Lakefront Airport, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and beautifying the airport, has begun the process of raising funds to do so. To help with the restoration please visit Friends of New Orleans Lakefront Airport.