Functional Fountains

For many communities, the prospect of installing a new park fountain can be daunting--even for cities that already have them. But careful planning and study--and expert advice--can help reduce the obstacles and challenges.

In Portland, Ore., which has 20 municipal fountains ranging from small drinking “bubblers” to large computer-controlled decorative delights, the Water Bureau has administered the fountains for about 20 years, inheriting them in 1988 from the Bureau of Parks & Recreation during a budget shift, said spokeswoman Tricia Knoll.

“It was a fairly natural process, we are funded by waters … We have an expertise with pumps and motors [and] we know how to chlorinate,” Knoll said. “We realized early on, however, that we aren’t curators.” The water bureau joined with the Regional Arts & Culture Council for the curatorial part of the work, focusing on the maintenance of the sculptural, decorative elements.

In recent years, the city has installed several new fountains--the Jamison Square Fountain in the northwest part of the city, and the McCoy Fountain in North Portland. McCoy, in particular, is designed for efficiency in using energy and water. Knoll said it’s critical for the agency responsible for maintenance to be involved in the early conceptual stages.

“When Jamison and McCoy were on the drawing boards because they would provide popular urban gathering spots for families and youth, we asked to sit at the table during the design process because we were ultimately going to be responsible for the long-term maintenance,” she said.

Waterfront Design Influence

In Bremerton, Wash., the city opened a $3.2 million, 1.2-acre park last summer that included five interactive fountains designed by WET Design of Sun Valley, Calif. Gary Sexton, the city's redevelopment projects administrator, said the designs were meant to mirror ships going to sea, volcanic eruptions or whales spouting.

"The overall goal was to create a destination park and public place with great diversity in use and public appeal," Sexton said. "We wanted features, including the fountains that would be visually stunning, inviting, interactive, majestic, magical and playful."

The designs were chosen, in part, to recognize the area's roots, and "have connectivity to the adjoining Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and the downtown urban environment," Sexton said.

Bremerton also has two other WET Design fountains nearby on the waterfront, and is in the final design phase for a third set, Sexton said.

A Replica In Progress

A different experience can be seen in Thorntown, Ind., where a new fountain project, which opened last summer, is actually an old one. The city now boasts a replica of a 1909 fountain that was the pride and joy of the community until it was torn down in 1944 to make way for a highway. And the fountain isn’t run by a parks agency with established expertise and a staff of engineers--it was conceived, designed, built, and operated by the local library.

Library Director Karen Niemeyer said the replica idea came out of planning in 2002 for the expansion and renovation of the library complex. While president of the local historical society several years before, she tried to obtain money for a replica at the town museum, but the library site was perfect, she said. “The central spot for the fountain allows it to be appropriately featured.”

A 42-person advisory committee recommended that a fountain be included in the library project, but it was cost-prohibitive. The library board told Niemeyer the fountain could be ordered if $48,000 was raised separately. After several years of fundraising efforts, gathering donations from five cents to $5,000, running a formal gala dinner, recycling inkjet cartridges and selling books, the project was underway.

Local Support Is Key

“The community wanted its historic fountain back,” Niemeyer said. “If you want to make it happen, do so. Pick a project your community will support, and it will happen. Someone, however, will have to be the motivating force and keep the ball rolling.”

The replica isn’t exact, however. The original fountain was 32 feet tall, which would have dwarfed the new library building. It’s now 12 ½ feet tall, designed proportionally based on the 1909 design.

Niemeyer said only one company--an Alabama-based firm--could promise a match for the original fountain. One vintage design shop she visited would have sold a bowl, basin and statue separately, with the library then figuring out “how to put the pieces together,” she said. “I wanted the assurance that the finished piece would be functional.”

From a design and maintenance standpoint, Niemeyer said she’d change one thing if it were to be done again: “I would make a pump accessible above the water so the plumber does not have to wear his swimsuit to adjust water pressure,” she said.

As for the installation, Niemeyer advises other communities to find “quality local installers whom they trust.

“Even though it may be their first fountain installation, find those who will do the research and make the calls to do a great job for you. You will need their help, long after the manufacturers and their installers have left the state.”

“Our plumber is young, but he is fantastic,” she said. “Our electrician is his dad, and he runs a great operation too.”

Maintenance And Upkeep

One of the chief issues for Portland has been maintaining its older fountains, the oldest of which dates to 1888. “Each fountain was designed for a different urban development project,” Knoll explained. “They never had ‘off-the-shelf’ parts and motors.”

For newer fountains, though, the Water Bureau takes a close look at the vaults underneath. “Vaults below fountains are known to leak--but they have motors and pumps in them,” Knoll said. “For the safety and long-term maintenance access, we want to be part of the design process. Siting the vaults and designing them are important.”

The city has also been involved in several restoration projects, partnering with the regional arts council that has curatorial responsibility for the sculptural elements. The bronze Skidmore Fountain--built in 1888--was designed as a fountain for men, horses and dogs. Residents and visitors used to drink from tin cups that hung on the fountain’s base, according to the city. In 2005, the water bureau set aside $33,000 to restore the Skidmore fountain, “the city’s oldest piece of public art,” said Knoll. “It was leaking, had pump problems, and the granite surfaces needed restoration after decades of water flowing over them.” The agency’s operations and maintenance staff worked closely with a professional conservator to overhaul the fountain--a “shining example” of the joint working relationship, said Knoll.

In the mid-1990s, the city put $600,000 into the Keller Forecourt Fountain--built in 1971--upgrading lighting, restoring loose rock and fixing leaks. “It no longer met electrical codes at that time,” Knoll said. “The rock surfaces had settled and were leaking more than a million gallons of water a day.”

And it’s not just older fountains that require work: Portland’s Salmon Street Springs fountain--built in 1988--is operated by computer to change water patterns, and the city has replaced and reprogrammed the computers to keep it up and running.

“The goal is to keep the fountains in top shape to ensure that future generations of Portlanders can enjoy the historic, scenic and fun gathering places,” Knoll said. “The sound of water in any urban setting adds quality to the setting. We’re proud of the work we do on these fountains.”

Dan Shortridge is a freelance writer and editor from Delaware. He worked for five years as an outdoor skills instructor and director at a Boy Scout summer camp in Maryland.