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Thursday, March 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Local fountains delight us, inspire us and bring us together

By Young Chang
Seattle Times staff reporter

David Neiwert and daughter Fiona, 2, play in the International Fountain at Seattle Center.
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Fountains are great to look at and soothing to listen to, but Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson is convinced that they also possess the oddest ability to make men in tuxes and women in evening gowns kick off their fancy shoes and play.

Take what happened at the opening of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, a glamorous soiree last June that attracted the city's who's who, including renowned soprano Jane Eaglen. Anderson remembers attending the party and being stunned, in a good way, by the high heels and men's dress shoes that got banished to one side while their owners splashed in the hall's shallow, ground-level fountain.

"There's something so profoundly human about the interaction with water," Anderson said. "It breaks down barriers about who we think we are."

She considers Seattle Center's International Fountain, a couple minutes by foot from her office, the "family room" of the campus.

Since a major makeover in 1995, the fountain has unofficially become Seattle's gathering place, be it to celebrate a sunny day or to light candles during times of sadness.

Entire classrooms picnic along the outer circle of the fountain's dome when the sun decides to show. Kids run near the water at the base of the dome — and away from it and back near it again, all the while squealing — because getting wet without a change of clothes is undeniably thrilling.

The International Fountain at the Seattle Center features water displays synchronized with music.

And when the city mourns, the immense fountain, which spews water and music, fills with people needing to lay their bouquets next to someone else's.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, thousands flocked to the fountain to grieve among friends and strangers. What began as a three-hour ceremony stretched through four days. Visitors blanketed the area so thickly with flowers that Seattle Center officials turned the plants into mulch, later used as a base for the campus' September 11 Memorial Garden.

"It's important for the fountain to reflect the mission of Seattle Center," Anderson said. "To delight and inspire and to bring us together."

The fountain's original design did not fulfill that goal. Built in 1961 for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the first version involved plenty of uninviting iron nozzles and a ring of sharp-edged white rocks along the circumference of the circle-within-a-circle design — a site reminiscent of a sea urchin, said Seattle Center spokesman Perry Cooper. No one was allowed to get in. In fact, the design made it dangerous to try.

In the early '90s, a committee to renovate the fountain decided that the unfriendly nozzles and edges had to go. They kept the circle design. They changed the fountain's do-not-enter rules. They added technology to synchronize the water's movements to music.

Today, the International Fountain is made up of 150 mist nozzles, 56 microshooters and four super shooters in a 200-foot-wide bowl. It recycles 9,000 gallons of water constantly, with staff refilling the amount that evaporates or gets blown away. Water sprays year-round in fancy "Fleur de Lis" and other formations, synchronized to music ranging from Aaron Copland to Duke Ellington.

Building operations engineer Jeff Stinson regulates the International Fountain's 150 mist nozzles, 56 microshooters and four super shooters from underneath the structure's bowl. The fountain constantly recycles 9,000 gallons of water, which is purified with three types of treatment before being shot out.
Seattle Center maintenance staff regulates the fountain's activities from a netherworld below the structure's bowl — a bromine-scented land of rusted pipes and pumps where water is purified with three types of treatment before being shot out.

Anyone standing close to the fountain's outer circle gets misted by the water's sprays. The slow slant from the outside circle to the inside dome makes it safe for everyone, including small children and visitors in wheelchairs, to travel into the water.

But for visitors looking to sit and slow down, the fountain also affords them a quiet moment.

Claire Zawa hangs out there to stare at something besides her computer. The 22-year-old, part of Seattle Repertory Theatre's stage-management staff, said she had no idea how long she'd been sitting there during a recent visit. This is also where the Chicago transplant likes to come when she's homesick for Lake Michigan.

"I can just think about nothing," Zawa said. "I've kind of just gone to neutral."

Young Chang: 206-748-5815 or


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