Aqua urbana – Part I

Note: This ended up being in three parts. Part II is here and Part III is here.

There are a number of ways to be near water in Seattle. Until this week it was starting to seem that all you had to do was walk outside and let it fall on you. But even when the rainclouds mosey on over the mountains and the sun comes out again, there is still plenty of water about. Lakes and waterways abound, and last time I looked (which was at lunch) the Puget Sound was out there, a vast inland saltwater sea that those with wide anthropological perspective and those given to causing trouble call the Salish Sea.

Water actually gets in our way and, when bridges fail, it imperils our collective bustling around from here to there. And our bridges do fail — the floating ones float away and sink in storms (Hood Canal, 1979; Lacey V. Murrow, 1990), the high and gracefully arched ones fall into the deep channels that separate the twisting islands and peninsulae of the Sound (Tacoma Narrows, a.k.a. “Galloping Gertie”, 1940) and the drawbridges get stuck open when ships crash into them (Spokane Street Bridge No. 1, 1978, and what a sorry tale THAT turned out to be).

Hey, we’re a port city. Water water everywhere, sure. But there’s a different water experience that some of us seek out, and that’s the babble, chortle and roar of water splashing around in fountains and other man-made cascades solely for our serenity and refreshment. Water not on its way somewhere, water just circling.

I’ve been collecting these “water features” around town in recent weeks in order to present them to you here. I don’t often go and sit by them for long periods, simply because my impulse in the middle of the day is to get my blood circulating. If I had more time I would.

Nevertheless, here are several places downtown where you can go and be near water in feckless, frolicking motion. The list is not exhaustive, I’m sure, but it’s big enough that I’ve had to break it into two parts (I set out thinking I’d find nine or ten, but I’m up to fifteen already) and includes one fountain that’s been dry since the last millennium. Let me know of other ones you’ve discovered! First off, we’ll explore places west of Third Avenue toward the bay, then later we’ll range further up the old slope.

First and Union

West of here, Union Avenue is a series of stairways.

We’ll start at the point where Union Street ends abruptly in the driveway of the new Four Seasons Hotel. I see from satellite imagery that the hotel has a pool on the roof for paying guests, but for working stiffs like you and me shuffling around at street level, this little bench fountain will have to do. I’ve walked by this installation a million times and even probably sat on it, but I didn’t realize that water was trickling over the back side of it until I was out with my camera specifically looking for water trickling over the back sides of things. The view directly across this man’s pad thai from him is really a nice one. The ferries from Winslow and Bremerton shuttle in and away again as your eye muscles practice looking into unobstructed distance.

Sound quality: Almost imperceptible
Sittability:
Excellent
Best time to go:
Morning, when the sun is on the Olympic Mountains and the bay is really blue.

First and University

There are fountains all the way down the Harbor Steps.

You can sit right on the water jets if you've a mind to.

University Street used to “go right through”, to repeat Woody’s phrase from three posts ago, from the waterfront up to Capitol Hill. In the late 1990s the old buildings on both sides of University between First and Western avenues — buildings which I assume were derelict — were razed to make way for Stimson Bullitt’s pet project, the Harbor Steps development (if you sniff around, you can find some stone arches from one of the original buildings’ facade that have been preserved). I can’t imagine the political power one would have had to wield to get a street closed off but the prince of the King Broadcasting dynasty had just that kind of clout. Well, what’s one less steep hill to drive up in Seattle; we’ve got loads of ‘em. What we got in exchange, besides four mixed-use towers of apartments and ground-level retail, is a long and wide set of public stairs with fountains at several levels and space midway up for musical performers to play for a populace that loves to sit outside whenever it isn’t raining.

Sound quality: Varied and soothing
Sittability:
Excellent
Best time to go:
Fridays in summer, when there’s free music.

Second and University

A cool sound on a hot corner. One of the fountains in the Benaroya's Garden of Remembrance.

Further up University, on Second, Benaroya Hall reposes like…like…well, it’s there if you care to go see it. It’s a nice symphony hall, built as a structure within a structure, the first sitting on giant springs inside the second to keep the building from shaking the horn section offstage when trains pass through the downtown tunnel in the bedrock directly beneath the hall. The Garden of Remembrance at the Benaroya’s southwest corner honors our war dead, the names of fallen local veterans carved in the thousands in giant blocks of what I believe is basalt. Next to these monuments, water cascades over rough walls of the same stone. It gets hot on this corner if the sun’s out, so this one is ideal for springtime.

Sound quality: Soothing
Sittability:
Good, but you will be in the way of people making a beeline for the bus tunnel
Best time to go:
Springtime, or mornings in summertime

The courtyard at the old bank.

Nextdoor to the Benaroya in the lower courtyard of the WaMu/Chase Tower, water just pours out of tubes into a pool as from any old gutter spout, but the environs, which I’ve written about before, are very pleasant.

Sound quality: A little “ploppy”, but okay
Sittability:
Good, but smokers own this plaza
Best time to go:
Before or after WaMu becomes Chase

Third and Yesler

Duke remembers goldfish in the Prefontaine fountain.

I found no water here, but I encountered something even better so I’m including this old fountain. Heading south via Third Avenue we pause, as the gentleman named Duke pictured here has paused, at the corner of Third and Yesler. The site supposedly (and coincidentally, and even ironically) corresponds pretty well to the site of the first Seattle home of Monsignor François Xavier Préfontaine, who was a missionary in the city’s early days and who bequeathed the City $5,000 to be used for a fountain in a public square, although the City didn’t get around to building it until 1925, sixteen years after his death. I’ve never seen the fountain with water in it, and I think a lot of drug deals and other unsavory hookups take place here. Duke, who was born in Seattle and raised in Seattle and Tacoma, was on his way up the hill to the hospital when he stopped for a rest. He says the fountain hasn’t been turned on in about 15 years. He says it used to have goldfish in it and everything. According to Duke, “some fella got drunk and fell into it and drowned hisself, so they turned it off”. I told Duke I was born and raised across the water in Bellevue. “A whistle-stop,” Duke declared. “I remember when Bellevue wadn’t nothin’ but a whistle-stop.” When I asked if I could take his picture in front of the fountain, he said “sure, if you can get the fountain in it with me sitting right where I am.”

Sound quality: NA
Sittability:
Excellent
Best time to go:
1925

Second and Main

How do you hide a waterfall in the middle of a city? It's been here for more than thirty years.

Here’s one you may not ever have seen because it’s easy to miss. On the corner of Second and Main, just east of Occidental Square in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, is a bona fide waterfall. It’s inside a miniscule park surrounded by high walls on the site of the offices — now gone — of a little company once called American Messenger Service, which became United Parcel Service. Jim Casey, one of the founders of the company, also started the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the philanthropic outfit that commissioned Waterfall Park in 1977. Bring a sack lunch or some take-out and sit at the tables and chairs. This one is good during the heat of the day because of the cooling mist. And unless you see a jet fly over, there will be nothing to remind you that you are in the heart of one of the West Coast’s biggest metropolissesses.

Sound quality: Loud but soothing because the rocks fracture the sound into higher frequencies (my theory)
Sittability:
Excellent (tables with chairs always available)
Best time to go:
Whenever you can

Alaskan Way at Yesler

This is the best I can do with this location.

The real story.

I kept thinking, didn’t there used to be a fountain at the Ferry Terminal before they remodeled its entrance? I zimbered over there recently and found this vintage fountain which I’m almost sure is by native Seattlite George Tsutakawa. It looks a lot like another one that I know to be his creation that we’ll look at in Part II when we head for higher ground. My very unreliable (yet native!) memory tells me this fountain was originally at the bottom of a long, silly ramp that led up into the fairy terminal, apparently before elevators and escalators. In fact, I’m sure it was there, which means that two of Tsutakawa’s fountains that I know about are in locations other than where they started out. This one’s been reinstalled a good scoot to the south, right next to where all the cars pour into the ferry ticket booth lines. Consequently, it’s hard to get photos of this fountain that really make it sing. I’ve posted two, one putting forward its best foot — even though its shape rather gets lost in the bushes — and another facing south to show you the proximity not only of the rush of island- and peninsula-bound traffic two feet beyond the fountain, but also of the industrial (Port of Seattle) neighborhood beginning a few doors south. And I didn’t even include the one with that damned Tyrannosaurus Viaductus in the background.

Sound quality: Soothing, almost drowns out the viaduct
Sittability:
Good (you can sit on the edge, benches a few yards away)
Best time to go:
Morning, I’d say, since it’s out in the open and there are no trees around. Avoid baking hot days and evening rush hour.

Alaskan Way at Union

A busy location through the spring and summer months. Here a henna net is cast for tourists.

Moving north along the waterfront we come to an installation given to the city by the daughter, and in memory, of Edward M. and Margaret J. Harrington. A plaque there notes that they “loved this city”. The fountain, which stands in the Waterfront Park next to the Aquarium, was started by sculptor James Fitzgerald and finished in 1974 by his wife Margaret Tomkins after he died. I prefer fountains that are not so square and industrial-looking, but you can sit next to this fountain and go completely deaf to the racket of the Alaskan Way Viaduct across the street. You can also get henna tattoos by KK. Paul Dorpat has written about the people behind (figuratively) this fountain here: http://pauldorpat.com/seattle-now-and-then/seattle-now-then-waterfront-park-fountain/.

Sound quality: Deafeningly loud.
Sittability:
Okay. The low narrow curb is not comfortable, but there are benches nearby.
Best time to go:
If you like bumping elbows with tourists, go anytime in summer.

Alaskan Way at Broad Street

"Father and Son" above father and mother and daughters.

We finish at the waterfront’s northern end, below this gentleman’s…er…southern end. You saw this fountain a week or so ago when I was gushing thankfulness that the sun had come out. Here I and my nuke are enjoying an after dinner walk with friends. The trick about Louise Bourgeois’ “Father and Son”, the sculpture that stands literally in the midst of this fountain at the southern end of Olympic Sculpture Park, is that the water jets change pattern every so often, so that either the son is visible and the father is hidden by water, or vice versa, or they are both visible. (It’s about the difficulties in intrafamilial male relationships and what I would call “unavailability”). I don’t know what the interval is, but I think I once heard that it’s on the hour, and that makes sense, but guess what: for all the times I’ve walked past this fountain, and stood next to it, and stared at it while we ate at the Old Spaghetti Factory across the street, I’ve never seen it change. It always just suddenly is changed the next time I look up. It happened last week. I walked by it at lunch when the boy was visible, turned around a hundred yards later, and came back to find the man visible. I looked at my timepiece (okay, phone) and saw that a clock hour had ended during that few minutes.

Sound quality: Loud but not obnoxious.
Sittability:
Excellent.
Best time to go:
Any time you can spare 61 minutes in a row.

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10 Responses to “Aqua urbana – Part I”


  1. 1 Louis June 25, 2011 at 01:48

    Matt, thank you for this wonderful tour. You are my virtual walk around the city. I knew of some of these fountains, but certainly not all of them. The waterfall I first came across in 2007. Never saw it before then. I think I was leaving some kind of sporting event down there, when we passed it. Everybody in my party kept on going, but I froze just staring at this tranquil place, which I probably had passed a ignorillion times without ever noticing.

    I think you had posted once about a band at the First and University fountain, no? I really got a kick out of your “Sound quality/Sittability/Best time” at the end of each review. And for the first sentence of the last paragraph, I award you this medal of honor:

    http://www.drumbutton.com

  2. 2 Matt June 25, 2011 at 08:06

    Thanks Louis,
    Glad you came along. Yes, the waterfall is wonderful and I’m always surprised that the place isn’t mobbed. And your memory is spot on, I’ve seen many concerts at the Harbor Steps, and my fam and I have seen the Dusty 45s play there twice — I wrote about the first time circa Aug ’09. The ratings are really subjective, of course, especially the sound quality. One man’s trickle is another’s Chinese water torture.

    P.S. Thanks for the drumbeats!

  3. 3 Jana June 26, 2011 at 16:30

    Another superblyawesome post! I can’t wait for Part 2. And (I do believe this is the second time I’ve urged you to a further task since I also asked if you could get your movie digitized . . .) in all your spare time ;-) I would love to see a pushpin map – this belongs on a tourism site – this says it’s for historic walking tours http://www.seattle.gov/tour/historicdistricts/ but I liken your finds to the Seattle Clock Walk tour at the bottom of this page with Other Self Guided Tours. (I really like Louis’ drumbeats, too!)

    • 4 Matt June 27, 2011 at 09:28

      Jana,
      Thanks. You always have such interesting links to share. I love that Clock Walk, kind of wondering how I didn’t think of that myself. But I have some other ideas up my sleeve. I think the pin map would be easy to do, I just haven’t got around to trying it. Linking it into my blog post might require the WordPress upgrade I’m too cheap to spring for. Speaking of that, I still intend to get my movies transferred, but I’m not in a rush, especially since Marni — who starred in one of them — has promised to visit unspeakable vengeance upon me if I publish any motion pictures of her.

      • 5 marni June 28, 2011 at 18:07

        You can publish all of your FINISHED movies. Feel free! Ours was, tragically, unfinished. More tragically, you made me attempt an English accent. For that alone there should be some sort of prison sentence. Great fountains- keep ‘em coming!

  4. 6 Rachael June 27, 2011 at 21:24

    No drum sounds to reward you with; only today’s honorary Expansion of the English Language Award. “Metropolissesses”? “Zimbered”? Reminds me of the old tune, “Zimbering by the Old Metropolissesses.” : )

    • 7 Matt June 28, 2011 at 07:51

      Rachael,
      That’s a classic. Stephen Foster, right?

      I’m nothing if not a staunch supporter of making the language up as you go along. Zimber is from the Eloise children’s books, as are sklathe and skibble, the latter of which I believe you also commented on approvingly once.


  1. 1 Aqua urbana – Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on June 29, 2011 at 14:18
  2. 2 Aqua urbana – Part III « Just Wondering Trackback on July 1, 2011 at 20:13
  3. 3 GSGH #12 solution « Just Wondering Trackback on April 10, 2012 at 21:58

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