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Will Landmark Modernist Fountain in Bmore Soon Be No More?

McKeldin Square in September 2014 (photo by Forsaken Fotos/Flickr)
McKeldin Square in September 2014 (photo by Forsaken Fotos/Flickr)

Baltimore’s McKeldin Fountain, a fixture of the city’s inner harbor since water started cascading down its tiered basins in 1982, may soon be demolished. A $24.4 million Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. redevelopment project that aims to reconfigure McKeldin Plaza and the intersection of Light and Pratt streets while doing away with the fountain has been in the works since 2008, but now a group of preservation-minded locals is making a plea for the public artwork’s preservation.

According to the Baltimore Business Journal, the Downtown Partnership has already raised about $1.3 million toward the demolition of the fountain, which is named after former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Theodore McKeldin, but was originally dedicated as The Waterfall. Though it was designed by Thomas Todd of the Philadelphia-based architecture firm Wallace Roberts and Todd to match the Brutalist architecture of its surroundings — including the nearby Mechanic Theatre, which is already being demolished — current plans for the reconfiguration of the intersection and plaza show the fountain being replaced by a patch of grass. But many feel that the reconfiguration project’s goal of making the plaza and traffic-choked intersection more easily navigable can be achieved without the demolition of the fountain and its elevated walkways.

A postcard from the 1980s showing the McKeldin Fountain and Plaza (photo by Bob Willis, via Facebook)
A postcard from the 1980s showing the McKeldin Fountain and Plaza (photo by Bob Willis, via Facebook) (click to enlarge)

“The problem isn’t the fountain,” Kathleen Lane and Tom Liebel, the director and president, respectively, of the American Institute of Architects Baltimore, told the City Paper. “The problem is the traffic circulation around McKeldin Plaza. If the fountain is demolished, and the traffic issues are not addressed, then the problem will not have been solved.”

Others are arguing for the fountain’s preservation for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

“The Fountain is formally the heart of the composition of this area between downtown Baltimore and the Harbor,” a group simply called McKeldin Fountain wrote in a feature on Bmore Art. “The Fountain is a rare example of public art that is both functional and occupiable.” McKeldin Plaza was the site of Occupy Baltimore for two months in the fall of 2011.

Occupy Baltimore in McKeldin Plaza (photo by  A.Currell/Flickr)
Occupy Baltimore protesters in McKeldin Plaza in 2011 (photo by A.Currell/Flickr)

“Right now, maybe with the blue pools and no greenery, it looks lifeless, but if you look at other places that have been enlivened with great plantings, you could make McKeldin Fountain come alive as well,” Jennifer Goold, the Neighborhood Design Center’s executive director, told the Business Journal. “The fountain represents the optimism of recapturing our waterfront in the midcentury, and Brutalism in general was meant to embrace that robustness of optimism. We’re losing some valuable treasures because they’re at the point of unfashionability, and Brutalism is at that moment of the cycle.”

Members of D center Baltimore, a collective of architects, designers, activists, and concerned community members, hope to make alternate proposals for the transformation of the McKeldin Plaza. “If we can understand what the demolition is trying to solve or accomplish, we can structure alternative design solutions that solve that problem without demolition,” they said in a statement quoted by the Business Journal.

Those responsible for the site’s redevelopment, however, consider the preservationists’ pleas too little, too late. “Not once did anyone raise a concern about the fountain being demolished,” Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, told the Business Journal. “At some point you have to trust in the public process a few years ago, and we can’t reopen the public process every time someone just discovered it occurred.”

Though it could be another year before the plans for the plaza’s redevelopment and the fountain’s demolition are approved by the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, Fowler is pushing for McKeldin’s demolition sooner rather than later. “We’re working on the construction documents as we speak for the demolition as well as the replacement plan,” he told the Business Journal. “We have every intention of beginning demolition in the third quarter of 2015.”

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