Rose City

The Skidmore Fountain: A historic and contemporary watering hole

Good citizens are the riches of a city.
— C.E.S. Wood
Skidmore Fountain, Portland, OR, 1888, Bronze and Granite  The Skidmore Fountain was built as a watering hole for horses, dogs, and people.  It is the centerpiece of Akeny Plaza in Portland's Old Town district.

Skidmore Fountain, Portland, OR, 1888, Bronze and Granite

The Skidmore Fountain was built as a watering hole for horses, dogs, and people.  It is the centerpiece of Akeny Plaza in Portland's Old Town district.

I've visited Portland's oldest example of public art, the Skidmore Fountain in downtown Portland, twice.  I first encountered this neo-classical watering hole last summer on a clear, late June day.  As I read the above quote, inscribed on one of its granite faces, a middle aged woman in a neon green tutu straddled the fountain's lower basin.  Half in and half out of the rippling water, her long bleached blond hair, like her arms, extended in multiple directions as she gesticulated and shouted at a couple of friends.  She buzzed with an accelerated energy that seemed as unnatural as her blond hair and tutu's fluorescent green.

 

The Skidmore Fountain's sculptor, Olin Wood, was influenced by neo-classical work in the 1878 Paris World's Fair.

The Skidmore Fountain's sculptor, Olin Wood, was influenced by neo-classical work in the 1878 Paris World's Fair.

The fountain's balanced ratios and classical elements, embossed rosettes and palmettes, spiraling volutes and twin nymphs or goddesses bearing the weight of the upper bronze basin evoke cultural ideals such as harmony, reason, and tradition.  The real time human interaction with this Victorian fount contrasted starkly with its contained and elegant aesthetic as well as C.E.S. Woods' aspirational quote.  Homeless citizens, agitated and lacking anywhere to hold their accompanying earthly possessions, congregated around this historic watering hole. 

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I returned to the Skidmore Fountain last month.  While its lower basin was empty homeless citizens still gathered around with blankets and backpacks.  As I stood momentarily entranced by water twinkling like liquid stars a man with a shaved head, baggy jeans, and patchy beard staggered across Akeny Plaza.  In that moment beauty and bare life simultaneously dominated my vision. 

Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben defines bare life as a "state of exception" or condition of existing outside the state and thereby being denied the basic rights and protections granted to citizens (more on the contentious nature of citizenship in a future post!). Public parks and plazas, urban spaces meant for respite and reflection, are often spaces where visitors encounter individuals arguably living in states of exception.  These spaces built for aspirational purposes instead provide space to confront public failures. 

The Skidmore Fountain persists as a public watering hole, serving its original purpose as a space to gather and rest.  It also provides space for reflection but of a more political and urgent nature that I suspect C.E.S. Wood or Stephen G. Skidmore intended.  While encountering this bronze and granite homage to good citizenry, I imagined an updated inscription:

Good social services are the riches of a city.