Water no longer flows from Portland, Oregon’s Skidmore Fountain for the convenience of horses, men, and dogs, as its benefactor intended. Otherwise things are pretty much as they should be. The triangular crossroads at S.W. First Avenue, S.W. Ankeny Street, and S.W. Vine Street remains the heart of a vibrant public space, an urban drawing room where the 107-year-old landmark fountain in the oldest part of the city is still the place at which people arrange to meet.
The fountain was the gift of a local businessman, Stephen Skidmore, who, after a visit to the 1878 Paris Exposition, returned to Portland determined to replicate, as best the young city could, the spirited life of a European plaza. He added a bequest of five thousand dollars in his will for this purpose and died not long after.
The architect chosen for the job, Olin Warner, who had recently completed the bronze entry doors of the Library of Congress, saw at the fountain’s site a vista dramatized by the confluence of long avenues that possibly reminded him of the design of the nation’s capital. At any rate, the space he had to work with, as shown in the photo at the left, dating from the fountain’s completion, was faced with arcaded blocks of buildings that from the first had housed the city’s centers of commerce and entertainment.
The splendid Ankeny block, seen at the left in the early photo, came down in 1940, as the neighborhood grew bedraggled; later it was even suggested that the fountain itself might have to be removed from its disreputable setting. But the plaza prevailed, and the New Market Theater, built in 1872 to house a produce market on the ground floor and a theater above, also managed to survive and gained new life when the neighborhood itself revived over the last two decades.
In today’s photo we see the New Market building dominating First Avenue, to the right of the fountain, sheltering at its base an enclosed outdoor restaurant area whose arches are all that remain from the handsome structure at its side in the earlier photograph. This is a major improvement over the parking lot that occupied the space for many years. Reminders of other lost architectural treasures—cast-iron remnants—are set into the brick wall at the left; beyond it lies a 1950s fire station.
Both photographs are uncommonly free of people; each was taken in the quiet hours to reveal the structure of the fountain and to make plain its surroundings. But in both we see the life’s blood of a thriving city, its public transport. The old trolley rattles north on First Avenue in the 1888 photo, and its modern equivalent carries today’s visitors and locals to the area’s biggest draw, a lively public market that has grown to encircle the fountain and spill onto the adjacent streets. Stephen Skidmore didn’t live long enough to see his fine gift unveiled, but he left instructions about the motto it would bear. His choice, engraved on the west side of the fountain: “Good citizens are the riches of a city.” With his five-thousand-dollar gift Skidmore carved out a space good citizens would find their way to through the twentieth century and most likely long into the next one, a plaza filled with references to the past just like those in the European cities he so admired.