Saturday, March 02, 2013

Loyal B. Stearns Memorial Fountain

Loyal B. Stearns Memorial

At the Burnside entrance to Portland's Washington Park, near NW 24th Place, there's a curious curved monument featuring a trio of drinking fountains. It's dated 1936, and is dedicated to the memory of one Loyal B. Stearns, a one-term Republican state legislator from Portland (if you can believe that), who later went on to hold various judgeships over the next two decades. Despite what you might think, this isn't a monument from a grateful city thanking him for his tireless public service. The Smithsonian's art inventory says this of the Loyal B. Stearns Memorial Fountain:

The fountain was funded with a bequest of $5,000 given to the City of Portland by Judge Loyal B. Stearns (1853-1936) for a drinking fountain on upper West Burnside Street. A contest for the design of the fountain was held, and the design by A. E. Doyle & Associates was chosen. Loyal B. Stearns was a politician, attorney, and jurist in Oregon. He was a member of the Oregon House of Representatives and he served as judge for the police. In 1882 Stearns was elected county judge and in 1885, he was appointed circuit judge by Governor Moody. IAS files contain related articles from the Oregonian, Dec. 30, 1983 and Aug. 22, 1983 and citations to the Oregonian, Sept. 16, 1956 and the book, "Portland Block Book," Oct. 1891.

Via the Oregonian historical archives at the Multnomah County Library, we learn there's a bit more to the story. Stearns's will specified that the fountain must be sited along Burnside, somewhere between 15th and 23rd avenues, or failing that, somewhere nearby if his preferred range didn't work out. Which it obviously didn't since the fountain ended up a few blocks west of 23rd. This was an oddly specific bequest, but one with a rather prosaic explanation: . After retiring from the bench, Stearns had a real estate office in downtown Portland, and lived somewhere around 23rd. He walked to and from work every day, and the stretch of Burnside between 15th and 23rd was part of his daily commute. It had occurred to him that there really ought to be a drinking fountain somewhere along that route, and there wasn't one. So he put it in his will, possibly thinking that it's hard for a city to refuse a prominent citizen's final request, especially if there's cash attached.

Loyal B. Stearns Memorial

But of course giving things to the City of Portland has never been quite that straightforward. A suitable site would have to be found, and then a fountain would have to be designed and built for not a penny more than $5000. The city first wanted to build the fountain in front of Multnomah Stadium, today's Jeld-Wen Field, but could not come to an agreement with stadium management. One of the concerns about the stadium site was that the city was considering widening 20th Avenue as part of the proposed Foothills boulevard, an idea that later evolved into Interstate 405 (sited between 14th & 15th Avenues) several decades down the road. The eventual fountain site was the city's Plan B, placing it at the old Washington Park Zoo's former seal pond, which had closed some years prior and had become an eyesore. Stearns's granddaughters hated the new location; it wasn't part of their father's daily commute, they argued, which violated the spirit of the gift. This delayed the siting for some time. The granddaughters went off to search for a better location themselves, but eventually realized there were very few places one could build a fountain right along Burnside, and resigned themselves to the seal pond site. An Oregonian photo shows the site before the fountain was constructed, if you're curious to see what it looked like at the time.

Design and construction presented a problem as well. The city's arts commission seems to have felt that Stearns's bequest was not an overly generous gift for what he had in mind to build, and announced the contest would be to design for the city "the most attractive fountain that it can get for $5000 in place". The prize money for the design contest, architects' fees, and construction costs would all have to come out of the gift, as the city was determined to spend no taxpayer money on the fountain. In fact they looked into underspending on the fountain and keeping the balance. This stinginess makes a bit more sense when you recall that this gift came in the middle of the Great Depression, and the Arts Commission didn't exactly have a lot of extra cash lying around in case of cost overruns. The contest was launched in October 1940, limited to Oregon residents who were US citizens. Entrants were given just one month to submit proposals. The competition was eventually won by the prominent A.E. Doyle firm, whose proposal envisioned "a curved screen of granite, with dimension of eight feet by 12 feet, as the background for a fountain for dogs on one side, and a series of three fountains for persons on the other side." For this they received a princely $250 prize; the fact that they competed for this rather small award is another indicator this was the middle of the Depression. The Oregon Historical Society's research library has at least one of the competing proposals on file, but sadly the design sketches don't seem to be online.

Loyal B. Stearns Memorial

Once the design was finalized, construction was delayed waiting for granite to arrive from Minnesota. (The same granite was used for the base of the Theodore Roosevelt statue in the South Park blocks, for you trivia fans out there.) The Oregonian dutifully reported when construction finally began, but after that we see no further mention of the fountain (assuming the database search function is up to snuff) until a "historic fountains of Portland" article in 1983. If there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony, it seems to have gone unreported-on by the paper. We also aren't told what the eventual cost of the fountain ended up being, despite all the handwringing earlier; some money must have been left over, though, as a "Loyal B. Stearns Foundation Trust" fund was set up to maintain the fountain, until it was merged with various other city parks trust funds in 1981.

The thing I'm really curious about, which again the Oregonian didn't report, is what Stearns's heirs thought of the finished product. For all the cost-consciousness and handwringing, we ended up with a rather attractive fountain, in an Art Deco style that's uncommon in Portland. On the other hand, his granddaughters had a legitimate point about the location; not only was it not on Stearns's daily commute, it isn't really on anyone else's daily commute either, and the fountain is lightly used and rarely noticed. I didn't think to check whether the drinking fountains were working when I visited. The dog fountain on the reverse side didn't seem to be functional at all, and probably hasn't been for quite some time. You'd think that local dog activists (which we have more than a few of here) would have demanded the city fix the dog fountain. They probably just don't realize it exists.

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1 comment :

Steve said...

Hi This is Steven Charlton. L.B. Stearns was my GR GR grandfather. My Grandmother (my fathers's mother) was Francis M. Spaulding grand daughter of LBS. Really glad you've collected and linked the story of the fountain. We see it frequency. We know it was hit by a drunk driver a few years ago suffering some damage, now repaired. But with city budgets being what they are it's unlikely it will be made to function as LB intended. We are in the process of seeing what we can do to fund its future needs. There are many Charlton relatives in the Portland and I will make them aware of our blog. Thanks again