Dancing Water

Baltimore Honors Late Civic Leader Sondheim With Fountain That Lets Visitors Play With The Spray

July 24, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

The Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas has one.

So does Millennium Park in Chicago.

And Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

Starting next week, Baltimore will join the select group of cities that boast a million-dollar "interactive" fountain as a public attraction, with "dancing" jets of water coordinated with music, colored lights and a fog machine.

The $1.2 million Walter Sondheim Fountain will make its debut next week on the west shore of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A construction fence will come down Monday, and the fountain will be turned on during a ceremony at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The Baltimore Sun got a preview Thursday.

Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit group that promotes the waterfront and raised money to complete the fountain, said she believes it will be a popular attraction, especially with children. The fountain was built with a mix of public and private funds.

"People are always asking what they can do for free around the harbor," she said. "This is a brand-new, free attraction for families. I really believe it's going to be one of the top attractions in the Inner Harbor."

The fountain is one of the final phases of the West Shore Park, a 3.4-acre green space created over the past several years between the Baltimore Visitor Center and the Maryland Science Center. It was a way to make the park more lively, said landscape architect Carol Macht of Hord Coplan Macht, which worked on the design with Thomas Balsley Associates of New York. Interactive fountains are "huge draws for people," she said. "We haven't had anything like it in Baltimore. It's very inviting."

Not many cities have amenities such as this, said Larry Bensky, vice president of Bensky Construction Co., the fountain's general contractor. "When we were testing it, crowds would gather around. It dances with the music. Kids will be able to take off their socks and shoes and come on in."

The fountain was named in honor of Sondheim, a longtime civic leader who headed the city's downtown development agency for many years and also the city and state school boards before his death in 2007.

It's considered Baltimore's first interactive fountain because people will be able to interact with the water, rather than simply watch it collect in a pool.

The fountain consists of 53 vertical streams of water that will shoot from jets embedded in a paved plaza. The water will rise up to 6 feet. At certain times of the day, there will be "shows" in which the water movements will be coordinated with songs including Whitney Houston's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Good Morning Baltimore" from Hairspray. After dark, the water will be synchronized with music and colored lights.

To honor Sondheim, the paved area includes statements from five Baltimore mayors who worked with him. "Walter was always the right man for any crisis," former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III is quoted as saying. "A giant in the history of Baltimore," says Mayor Sheila Dixon.

After Tuesday, the water will be turned on daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for most of the year, except when freezing temperatures could make the area slippery. The 10-minute shows will start on weekends every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekdays at 10 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Other songs include "All That Jazz" by Bebe Neuwirth, "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, "Summertime" by Ella Fitzgerald, "Swan Lake Ballet Suite" and "At Last" by Etta James.

The songs were selected, planners say, because they have a tie to Baltimore or they go well with the moving water and lights.

West Shore Park is a $6.6 million shoreline improvement project completed primarily with public funds, including a voter-approved bond issue. While most of the park was completed in 2006, representing an investment of $5.4 million, the city didn't have the funds to finish the fountain and made it a later phase of the project.

The Waterfront Partnership raised $300,000 from the private sector to bridge the funding gap. Major donors included Willard Hackerman and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., M&T Bank, and Mercy Medical Center, where Sondheim served on the board of trustees. Local design team members for the fountain were Carol Macht, Chris Shein, Om Khurjekar, Bridget Parlato and Veronika Horvath of Hord Coplan Macht.

City officials had been looking for a way to honor Sondheim, who died at 98, and felt that naming the fountain after him would be appropriate, said Andy Frank, first deputy mayor. "We thought, 'What could be more fitting than combining children and the Inner Harbor?'... This brings together two of his passions."

Schwartz said Sondheim was a humble man who might not have wanted a statue in his honor, but she thinks he would be happy to see a fountain because it's an attraction anyone can appreciate. The Waterfront Partnership will even be selling towels for anyone who gets too wet, she added.

"I think he would have loved that it's for families and kids," Schwartz said.

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