Wright Park

While over the next few months this blog will explore fountains’ practical purposes and symbolic meanings throughout time and across cultures, this entry involves two little known fountains less than a mile from my home.

I visited the fountains in Wright Park, a 27-acre urban park in Tacoma’s Stadium District, last month.  While sitting on the edge of the park’s elegant pond I was struck by the simplicity of the fountains’ clear geometric forms and assertive, forceful motion.  The fountains animate the otherwise tranquil pond, altering the surrounding space with their gravity defying cascade of hail like drops of water.  Water bursts into the air, forming an emphatic upside down cone and then falls in splashy and erratic globules that combine to form a frothy ring upon hitting the pond.  I wondered at the fountains’ somewhat disruptive energy in the otherwise placid surrounding environment.

As I researched the history of and future plans for Wright Park I couldn't find any references to the fountains.  Eventually, I emailed Tacoma’s Metro Parks office and learned that they are a recent addition, installed in 2010 to cleanse the pond.  As Melissa Wright, Metro Parks Historic and Cultural Resources Administrator explains, “The pond was completely dug out, lined with a plastic liner and the aerating fountains installed as a decorative feature as well as a way to keep the pond cleaner.”

The twin fountains’ simple and forceful blasts of water took on new meaning in light of their practical purpose, conjuring a sense of the focused energy that different forms of purification can require.  Now as I amble through the park and encounter each fountain’s inverted conical upswell and circular descent I think of the energy involved in personal, collective, and environmental forms of renewal.

Urban renewal was an American aspiration during the development of Wright Park.  The park’s purpose and timing aligns with the values espoused by the City Beautiful Movement (1890’s-1920’s), which focused on urban planning, especially the development of inviting and restorative public spaces.  This was a pivotal time when urban populations surpassed that of rural communities.  Parks were important to this movement which sought to carve out public spaces that would foster health, leisure, and ultimately civic virtues. 

A 1909 letter from Tacoma's board of park commissioners articulates Wright Park’s role in promoting the above values as:

… the only considerable breathing space reserved to the people thronging the central part of this city…where people can get recreation, where children from the congested districts can congregate without danger, and where mothers, nurses and invalids can find a healthful resort during mid-day without being cramped for space or being menaced by shows and their consequent temptations to spend their spare time within the walls of a packed building rather than in the health-giving environments of trees, plants, and flowers.

Critics of the City Beautiful Movement questioned the ability of aesthetics, e.g., beautiful parks and classically inspired plazas, to foster civic virtues.  This campaign strove not only to preserve open spaces but to infuse them with a sense of order and aesthetic sensibilities rooted in European classical traditions.  Its mission, fostering civic virtues, raises complex questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics:

How does (or perhaps simply does) the appropriation of particular aesthetic sensibilities signal and even promulgate shared values?  Can flowers, fountains, and trees cultivate good citizens?  What role can shared spaces play in promoting affirmative values?  Can spouting water foster a sense of renewal?

Works Cited

Marilyn Symmes, ed. Fountains, Splash and Spectacle - Water and Design from the Renaissance to the Present. Thames and Hudson. 1998

Melissa McGinnis, Doreen Beard-Simpkins, and the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma. Images of America: Tacoma’s Wright Park. Arcadia Publishing. 2008