The man who designed McKeldin Fountain learns of plans to tear it down

We tell the man who designed McKeldin Fountain of plans to tear it down. His response: "Well, shit!"

In 1963, Theodore McKeldin, newly re-elected as Baltimore's mayor after serving as Maryland's governor for eight years, announced that his second term as mayor would focus on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. This was the beginning of the process that would lead to the creation of the harbor as we now know it, with its tall ships, its promenade, its commercial pavilions originally operated by James Rouse's Rouse Company, and the fountain and plaza dedicated to McKeldin. The original Inner Harbor master plan was the work of Philadelphia-based planning and design firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), who have also executed urban planning projects in places as diverse as Waikiki in Honolulu, and Nigeria's new capital city of Abuja. WRT Principal Thomas A. Todd personally took charge of the design of McKeldin Fountain, also titled 'The Waterfall.' Today, the fountain is under threat, as a new master plan, designed by a team of Baltimore firms led by Ayers Saint Gross, wants to retool the plaza to re-organize pedestrian and car traffic, eliminating the existing fountain.

I talked with Thomas Todd by phone at his home in Massachusetts, where he is now retired and is an avid painter. Todd remembers the work that WRT did in Baltimore fondly. "Well, I'm working on a book, and the Inner Harbor is one of the first chapters," he told me. "Of course the fountain figures big in it, it's one of the things that's the climax, most cities don't have things like that." When told about the current plan, and the effort to remove the fountain, Todd spoke plainly: "Well, shit!"

"I still think it's a great piece of work," Todd said about the fountain. "I would hate to see an official ruffian come along and tear it down, just because he wanted to increase the traffic flow or something."

The original intentions of the designers also had to do with accommodating the requests of traffic engineers. "Well here was this large, kind of triangular piece of land, at the junction of Light Street and Pratt Street, and they wanted to twiddle around with the transportation scheme so that you could get buses and maybe even trains to go up Light Street. There were these two major highways coming down, and what were you going to do, dump them out onto Downtown? Well no, you couldn't do that, so you'd have to find some way of blending it all together. And everybody hated the highway schemes that were coming out, so I began to think in terms of making it all a part of a great big fountain. Everybody thought the idea was futile, but I fought away at it, and gradually the complainers evaporated. That's what happened."

The fountain, Todd explained, also needed be an asset to people visiting the harbor on foot. "Because if you had pedestrians who were going to have to stop, just to get across a couple of streets, they were going to have to stop at two or three traffic lights, it just seemed absurd to do that. So I came up with a bridge that goes across (the fountain), and goes directly into Rouse's pavilions. Everybody thought that was wonderful. What it did was to reduce the potentially rather clumsy massiveness of the fountain, and gave it a chance to be more about the pieces. Everybody liked that idea, they didn't want a big bulky pile of concrete there, they wanted something that would set off the landscape of the Inner Harbor, and be attractive to the properties on the west side and the north side." The version of the design for the fountain that included the skywalks was a hit. "The highway guys liked it, the traffic control people liked it. The city liked it because it made something special out of that clumsy, clumsy intersection, and it was an introduction to Downtown. It began to have a lot of public approval, starting with various city department officials."

For the design of the fountain itself, the priority was as much falling water as possible. "Well I wanted to have as much water, falling down as cascades and falls, as I could possibly get." Todd remembers that it was James Rouse himself who originally suggested using the source of the Susquehanna River, on its way into the Chesapeake Bay, as an inspiration. "That's something that Jim Rouse talked about, as he was dealing with some people upstate, and I thoroughly agreed with him. So I started to make as many waterfalls and little squirty fountains as I could, and places where you could walk in tunnels right under them, and sit in places and nestle them, and you could walk to a railing and hold on, and almost be a part of the water stream."

Todd said the fountain was intended to be a work in the brutalist mode, with the directness and honesty of the raw concrete material and the complex abstract geometry in dialogue with John Johansen's now-demolished Morris Mechanic Theatre farther up Charles Street. When asked if the fountain is a work of architecture, urban design, landscape, or sculpture, Todd said, "It was all of those things! It's not just a singular idea—you know, 'I want to build a box,' or 'I want to build a fountain.' I wanted to do all of those things, I wanted to have an object that would arrest your vision, from every side, as you approached it from all directions, and that it would be kind of the climax of the harbor itself."

Todd had some critical words for contemporary practitioners. "Nobody's looking for beautiful spatial solutions, as far as I can see, that aren't really, very simple," he said. "They're all in the mode of thinking that we shouldn't spend money on things of beauty in themselves, or things that add beauty to the city. I just went to see the most recent AIA awards, and I was surprised at how mundane a lot of this stuff there was, and I'm disappointed by it. I don't know if you share my view or not, but a chicken house is not a thing of beauty."

Todd is still proud of the attention that Baltimore's Inner Harbor has received over the years, via James Rouse and the Rouse Company. It has been the model for waterfront festival marketplaces in cities from New York to Sydney, Australia. "We received public accolades, and the place has become a multigenerational destination." Todd's still grateful for the chance to have been involved with the design of the Inner Harbor. "I'm very, very filled with gratitude, and I hope that the new generation is not so practical minded that they want to spoil it. I hope it doesn't get all bollocksed up and become a junk heap."

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