Aqua urbana – Part III

Today we finish our long walk around downtown Seattle visiting waterfalls and fountains and other wetscape elements. We looked at the fountains west of Third Avenue in Part I, and in Part II we took on the quadrant south of Seneca Street and east of Fourth Avenue. For the final installment we venture north of Seneca along the freeway and then over to Fourth and Pine…and beyond. If you can comment with any history or credit due, please due.

Seventh and Seneca

Aquatic Motown: a wall of of watery sound. There is much more water cascading than what is shown here.

You can tell you are getting old when you realize that things and events you think of as new or recent turn out to predate the entire lives of people that you report to at work. In my mind Freeway Park (whose name has officially been changed to Jim Ellis Freeway Park because of the universally acknowledged fact that it would never have happened without the efforts of that venerable civic leader and solicitor) is “that new park they put over I-5 a few years ago.” Imagine my astonishment then, when I dug up Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then feature showing the fountains there during the park’s dedication in 1976! Do I feel ancient? (Yes, I do.) I’ve said before that I prefer more earthy and organic fountain shapes, but there’s an impressive amount of water moving among the very square elements of this concretescape, which, come to think of it, together look like a scale model of a city. This park and its fountains is one of the other silver linings to having a freeway slice our town in two.

Sound quality: Loud
Sittability: Excellent (you can pretend you’re a lion at the zoo and just flop down on a slab) \
Best time to go: A hot day. The trees have grown up and there’s a lot of shade here these days.

Eighth and University

The water cascading here follows the walkway all the way down from the street above.

I’ve given the eastern fountain in Freeway Park its own entry because it’s pretty far away from the western fountain and in completely different environs, and while that one is almost like a swimming hole, this one is more like a place to rest on a forest journey. After I started catching my homebound bus at the Convention Place station (thus giving myself the gift of not only a long walk through town but also a non-underground wait, since that station is outside the tunnel’s northern end) I began experimenting with different routes to get there. That’s how I ended up discovering the Freeway Park fountains. Shown here is the bottom of a pretty long installation that travels alongside the walkway down from University Street’s First Hill avatar (the olde street abruptly ends to allow the freeway its mad right of way). Walking along that path reminds me of hiking the Northwest’s montane trails in June, when snow is still melting higher up and creating little creeks that accompany the paths noisily and chaotically like dogs, crossing and recrossing in front of you, again like dogs. The water is very doglike, I guess is what I’m saying.

Sound quality: Very good
Sittability: Excellent
Best time to go: It’s pretty secluded and foresty through here so if you’re jumpy go during rush hours when lots of people are heading up the path

Sixth and University

Busy stairway on one side, private bench on the other.

This fountain and the ones in the next entry are all in the same block: to wit, the block bounded by Union and University streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues, which I guess is called Union Square because the two buildings inside it are called One and Two Union Square. We’re arriving from the south, so we hit One first, and this little fountain comprises half of the wall next to the stairway up from University Street. The address One Union Square is affixed on the other half of the wall in gleaming silver letters, which makes this clever dribbler sort of an undulating real-world banner ad. It’s quite fetching. There’s a private corner behind it with a nice wood bench.

Sound quality: Faint, but that’s cool because this is a relatively quiet spot for downtown
Sittability:
Good
Best time to go:
As the spirit moves, I guess

Sixth and Union

Thanks to the woman on the stair for demonstrating not only scale but also an evocative five-o’clock weariness.

Moving northward from the upper plaza in front of One into the lower plaza in front of Two, we come to one of the nicest spots in the city to take your lunch. Really, the hustle and bustle just outside the square does not penetrate into it. Given that the third tallest building in Seattle presides over this plaza, I’m surprised that there aren’t more people in it. I recently visited on a sunny day during the lunch hour and there were a dozen and a half people sitting at the tables or on the fountain’s wall or various boulders, and a handful of folks passing through. I took the photo above at “closin’ time” on a day that was cloudy but still quite warm, and look — not a single soul seated and only one or two passing by. Where are the old men playing checkers? Where is the troubadour playing her accordion or guitar for lovers cooing under a leafy bower?

Sound quality: Pleasant in the utmost — a soothing rush of varied frequencies
Sittability: Five stars
Best time to go:When it’s mad busy everywhere else

I don’t know what the teens darkly huddled under the trees are up to, but I walked right by them and they paid little attention to me.

A few who appreciate the boon of an idyllic retreat. This photo showed the fountain perfectly but I had to crop it to reduce to zero the amount of buttcrack in the image.

The plaza is ringed on three sides by several terraces. On the top level on the west side is another fountain of the bubbling cauldron type. The benches next to and above it are thoughtfully curved so that everyone seated on them can enjoy this water feature, and you can also sit on slabs radiating out beneath it. On my sunny lunchtime visit there was a professionally dressed woman at one of the benches reading a novel. But at five o’clock on the day I returned with my camera, there were already several groups of youths here as if to answer the question I posed above. A young man in one of the groups played a guitar for his friends, who wore shirts that said things like “Let me drop everything and work on your problem”, and on the other side of the fountain another group (dimly visible in top photo) huddled together discreetly, but it wasn’t a young couple cooing, more like a trio dealing. So it seems that this square has a midday culture and an evening culture and they are very different. Some of the architectural details from the building that originally occupied this spot are preserved in the arches around the top terrace: you can just barely make out some of them in the top photo between the leaves of the trees.

Sound quality: A serene burbling
Sittability: Excellent; thoughtfully executed
Best time to go: Depends on what kind of culture you identify with

Fourth and Pine

A tunnel of water.

With the fountain a few yards away scrambling traffic noise, contestants can concentrate.

Just when you thought we’d seen every kind of fountain, along comes this tunnel of water at Westlake Plaza. It’s difficult to show how this works in a photo, but those who want to disappear between the sheets of water here must enter at the metal rail visible at the far end of the cascade on this side, and exit to the other side at the nearer metal bar. I haven’t walked through it. When I looked inside a breeze was blowing the water so that it hit the railbar and splattered in all directions, guaranteeing saturation for passers-through. This fountain is right out in the open at the edge of the plaza along Fourth Avenue, so it’s not about seclusion or being left alone, and this square attracts everyone from spontaneous buskers and scheduled musicians to professionals taking a lunch break to panhandlers and clipboard-carrying, hand-extending petition peddlers. There really is a lot of life in this square, which is triangle shaped. The fountain sits about where an old triangle-shaped building used to stand, back when the monorail came a few yards further south and crossed overtop of Pine. It occurs to me to wonder if the reddish decorative elements in the fountain’s pillars are remnants of that building’s facade.

Sound quality: Loud
Sittability: Okay. Few benches right at fountain but plenty of seating in the plaza
Best time to go: A windless day if you plan to traverse the fall’s interior, unless you’re in a humor to get soaked

Cedar, Fifth and Denny

Chief Noah Sealth. Still getting shorted.

Name me one statue of a(n) historical figure in the downtown area. [Pause.] Right. You can’t, because there aren’t any. My tour officially ended at Westlake, but as a special bonus for those of you who stuck with me this far, I give you a fountain way off north at Tilikum Place, often called Five Points, the triangle where Cedar and Fifth and Denny converge and where the 5 Points Cafe has a neon sign in the window saying “WE CHEAT TOURISTS-N-DRUNKS SINCE 1929″. It’s not only a fountain but also a statue of a person who lived and breathed, which makes it special in my book. After sculptor James Wehn’s likeness of the First Nations leader that Seattle is named for (his name really sounded something like Si’ahl and is often written “Sealth” and pronounced like “health”) the next closest one is the statue of Jimi Hendrix kneeling with a left-handed axe up on Broadway. After that, I don’t know of another until you get to George Washington on his pedestal next to Meany Hall at the University of Washington (Fremont’s statue of Lenin doesn’t count, since he was not our honoree but an import.) Seattle just doesn’t honor people with statues, I guess. Even this statue has a slightly forgotten feel to it, stashed away here near the foot of Queen Anne Hill since around 1910 (my cheap and dirty online research suggests the statue was created in 1912 but somehow erected in 1908). Self-righteously progressive, we Seattleites don’t like to be reminded that we swiped this verdant littoral from people who’d been using and respecting it for centuries. To add a final injury to all this insult, my photo chopped the chief’s fingers from his upraised right hand. This fountain shares that irritating ploppy sound with the one at WaMu but it’s an unexpected center of calm in a really busy area, and I’m fond of it because old Noah looks kind of small and vulnerable — there’s something real and about-as-large-as-life about him. For a better picture by Jan Krosnell, click here.

Sound quality: Ploppy in that Old World way
Sittability: Excellent. The fountain’s circular edge provides seating all the way around
Best time to go: Not when you’re touring and not when you’re drunk

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12 Responses to “Aqua urbana – Part III”


  1. 1 Louis July 2, 2011 at 04:09

    Jim Ellis Freeway Park. I like the way you split up the review, east and west. Maybe next time I’m in town we can visit there? I’d also like to visit Sixth and Union, during the lunch hour as is my culture. The Westlake fountain is interesting and I like the vibe there now. But I still would have preferred that they kept Westlake’s triangular Times Squareness.

    And thank you for the bonus fountain. Chief Si’ahl (I like your spelling better). It’s one of my favorites. Aside from its historic significance, I always liked the bear and the stream of water.

    There is one statue I know of downtown, It is located on a little triangular island between Westlake and 5th Avenues and between Olive Way and Stewart Street (across from the Westin hotel). It depicts Governor John Harte McGraw, who was the state’s second governor. The statue was sculpted to help jazz up the city for the AYP Exposition in 1909.

    No fountain. Just bronze, some benches, shrubs and a couple of trees. A little oasis among the cement and steel.

    http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!335386!0#focus

  2. 2 Matt July 2, 2011 at 20:31

    Louis,
    Yes, I liked the old Westlake configuration, too, but you gotta love any big public space like that and as you say, the vibe is good.

    And speaking of Westlake, you get a gold star, buddy! I was astounded when I google-mapped your man McGraw’s statue and found it standing there just as you described. I’ve been by there a buncha times lately, too, and just hadn’t remarked it. What a strange thing it is to be alive, is all I can see. That’s why I need my friends. From half a world away, you’ve opened up my eyes to a civic treasure I didn’t even know existed. Thanks Lou. I’ll have to go round there expressly to sit under that statue, though it lies just beyond my normal wandering range.

    And yes, by all means, when next you visit North America, we could get some street chow and take it over to Union Square and take our pick of fountains to eat by, then wander up to JEFP. I’m wide open this week in fact.

    • 3 Louis July 3, 2011 at 04:19

      Happy to help, and grateful for the technology that allowed me to pinpoint the statue’s location. I knew it was right by the Westin, but I had to google-map it myself to find which street it was on. I had it in my head that it was just off a street like 5th, but it’s on its own little island. And there I am going for a virtual walk to a place I’ve passed a bunch of times in my life.
      I can’t make lunch this week, but maybe in an upcoming week….chiz.

  3. 4 Jana July 5, 2011 at 08:45

    Much appreciate your thoughtfulness in cropping your photo to make it suitable for sharing!

    There’s a statue of Christopher Columbus on the waterfront.

    • 5 Matt July 5, 2011 at 09:29

      Hmmm. I was getting all geared up to quibble, because while I know (and had forgotten) that artistic representation of ol’ Kip Colombo you have referenced, it would never have occurred to me to call it a “statue” of him, because in my mind a statue is an attempt at lithorealism, the idea of statue-making being to depict a person as much as possible the way they really looked. But it didn’t take me long to realize that my argument is probably indefensible and that I don’t want to die on that hill. The piece does indeed call itself Christopher Columbus. For those unaware, this very striking piece suffers a lot of bad press as being “creepy” and “ugly”. It doesn’t look like the starchy Genoese dude we all know and feel ambivalent about, more like an ancient Greek warrior or even an Asian ninja in a bronze skirt. But I’ll give it to you and we’ll add that to our list of statues, which I should really make into a separate blog post, come to think of it.

      • 6 Jana July 5, 2011 at 09:44

        I totally understand your reticence. Not my favorite style to call a statue, either. But then I read the sculptor’s obituary and felt guilty.

        “Mr. Bennett later defended his work against the critics in a Seattle Times interview: “I was trying to reflect a Columbus whose crew had mutinied, some gone mad, looking out for land and dangerous reefs in a howling storm the night they landed after 33 days at sea. I chose to depict tenacity and courage — he was a dedicated S.O.B., also a madman.”

        “My father got really mad at the whole arts community,” Mentha-Bennett said. “It destroyed his chances for building a second sculpture.”

        She said her father wanted to depict Columbus as a lonely man who was still afraid the flat earth would drop off on his voyage to America.”

        And he’s not a local historical figure, either. He just came to mind when I was trying to think if I’d seen statues locally. I took a picture of my brand-new-boyfriend November 1980 with Chris (we’ve been married almost 28 years). We took a photo of our son with him in the early 90′s and completed the family collection with our daughter and me just a few months ago.

        Sorry to stray off topic!

        • 7 Matt July 5, 2011 at 10:41

          Jana,
          Given the digressive nature of my blog I don’t think there is any patch of real estate that a conversation can be taken to in these comments that can truly be considered “off topic.” I love that you returned to do a repeat photo with your kids in front of the C.C. statue. Also, I hadn’t known about this statue’s controversy until today, nor had I heard the artist’s defense you provided (thanks) until now, but I should have guessed it. Seattlites are totally like that about everything. I think Mr. Bennett should have felt encouraged that his art inspired an emotional response in so many people — what I’ve always heard is the point of artistic expression. I’ve come around 180 after our little chat here and I now fully endorse the waterfront Columbus statue as belonging on our list.

  4. 9 Matt July 6, 2011 at 21:41

    Jana,
    I do think you were standing on the same pier both times, and my experience with lenses makes me disregard apparent background distance (yes, focal length, the bane of repeaters), so the fact that the ferry terminal looks closer in the old doesn’t worry me. I go down and sit on that pier often (the one with the yellow building on it), and I can vouch that you’re shooting from the same pier because there are no other piers extending into this scene between the yellow-building’d pier and the Ivar’s pier next to the ferry terminal (that open space is where all those Argosy boats come and go, and you can see some of them in your photo). Great shots of your family next to the storied Columbus statue!


  1. 1 Aqua urbana – Part I « Just Wondering Trackback on December 1, 2011 at 10:43
  2. 2 Aqua urbana – Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on December 1, 2011 at 10:51

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