Arming Peggy MacGregor

Twenty-two years is a long time for a lady with a broken arm to stand around in the middle of a city. Even when the lady in question is a bronze sculpture given to the city in 1927.

You can go by and see her anytime -- on Richmond just off South Main, across from Sears and alongside what used to be the Delman Theater (and eventually became the Maceba). You can tell that this work of public art, when it was new and well-maintained, was a completely charming and captivating addition to a park. The sad but pretty young woman is seen from the side in high relief, clothed in a vaguely classical fashion typical of the 1920s. She stands against a rough-hewn slab of gray granite; originally, a hidden pipe released a small stream of water that ran down her face and splashed over the woman's outstretched hand before falling into a tile-lined basin at her feet. (At least that's what happened when the water was connected and she still had an arm; you can tell what it originally looked like by reading the old water stains on the granite.)

Aside from the patina that stains the face of the dirty granite stone, the sculpture itself is badly in need of cleaning. The scar is rough and jagged where the statue's arm was untimely ripped off, lending a derelict air to the piece.

In spite of the pathetic appearance of this city-owned artwork, it has impressive credentials in both the art world and local history. Henry Frederick MacGregor came to Houston in 1883, and two years later married Elizabeth (Peggy) Stevens. By 1900 he was active in real-estate development, especially in the fast-growing area south of McGowen. Late in life he gave his city MacGregor Park and much of the land along Braes Bayou and MacGregor Way, linking for the first time Hermann Park to a suburban park along a bayou stream.

MacGregor died in 1923, but his widow Peggy carried out his wishes to build a fountain in her honor. His affection for his wife is memorialized on a plaque on the back of the fountain: "A man is not his best until he has a wife and a home, and so much depends on the wife."

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was commissioned to design the fountain; he had just started the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota's Black Hills. The bronze was cast in Borglum's San Antonio studio, and Joe Machac of Austin designed and carved the stone backdrop. In a 1971 article in the Houston Chronicle, when he was 76, Machac reminisced: "It was intended to depict Mrs. MacGregor as a young woman, and also to depict youth at the Fountain of Life." The effect to me is much like a fountain I once saw of Saint Francis of Assisi; water welled from his hand and fell to a basin below.

By 1971 the arm was gone and the fountain was filled with trash. The original site, a small park at Almeda and Cleburne, was hemmed in by traffic and cut off from the old neighborhood. Around 1974 (the records are woefully spotty), however, the sculpture fountain was given a new lease on life. Although Borglum had died in 1949, the city commissioned his son and collaborator Loncoln to cast a new bronze arm from the original sketches; shortly after that the city relocated the piece to the newly christened Peggy's Point Park, the triangular sliver created when Richmond was realigned to join Wheeler Avenue.

The arm apparently was deliverd by 1976 to the engineering firm in charge of the work at the intersection, and was acknowledged and paid for by the city. But the arm was never installed!

Borglum's daughter, Robin Carter, who lives in Corpus Christi, has been trying to find out what happened to the arm, but has had no luck. At this writing, I haven't found anyone in the Parks Department or at the engineering firm who remembers anything about any of this 17 years later.

We have two basic problems here -- first, an important work of public art sits unnoticed, unrestored and badly maintained in the middle of a city that should know better. And second, an important work of art is stuck in an inappropriate location, accessible only by car at 25 m.p.h., or for 20-second increments as one waits for the light to change -- instead of in a populous pedestrian place.

Wouldn't it be appropriate to consider moving the Peggy Fountain to Hermann Park, especially since the philanthropy of the MacGregors created the beginnings of a true regional park system 70 years ago?

And isn't it unconscionable that the Houston Municipal Arts Commission hasn't started a movement to find poor Peggy's missing arm, restore the work and relocate it to a real site? It's the only custom-designed fountain we have in Houston by a world-renowned sculptor.


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