(THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 22nd, 2009)
 

PORTLAND — The Pullen Fountain behind Central Fire Station sits maybe 50 yards from my desk at work.

I’ve been aware of it for years, and always thought it odd, out of place and neglected. This summer, something happened that made me appreciate the fountain in a way I never had before.

I saw it being used for its intended purpose. More specifically, I heard it being used.

With the window open at my desk, I heard the clop-clop-clop of a horse coming down Federal Street toward the back of the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram building. Then a pause, and a slurp, slurp, slurp of water.

The century-old fountain was bubbling, and the horse was drinking.

The fountain, which honors animal rights pioneer Stanley Thomas Pullen, will soon be refurbished. Working in tandem with the city’s Historic Preservation Board, the Portland Public Art Committee is leading an effort to create a small park around the fountain, so it can revert to what it was when it was built.

Landscape architect Anthony Muench is designing a “pocket” park with trees and greenery. He presented his latest plan for the park at last week’s public art committee meeting.

There will be benches and an old-fashioned sidewalk. Perhaps most important, the park will also include bollards to create a barrier around the fountain so it will no longer be abused by snowplows, which sometimes clip it while chugging down Federal Street.

No wonder. It juts out in the roadway, and must present a great obstacle for the plow drivers, especially at night.

Over time, the fountain has also been diminished by skateboarders, who run up and alongside the reservoir that faces the street. In his design, Muench is trying to make the surface of the area around the fountain amenable to pedestrians while inhibiting its use by skateboarders.

The park should help preserve the fountain while creating a mini-oasis for folks working at the federal courthouse, the fire station or elsewhere in the neighborhood.

This project is about preserving something from the past while making it useful and practical in the present. It was designed for horses and will be used by horses in the future, and also by pedestrians. At the same time, it has to account for motor traffic, which had not yet come on the scene when the fountain was installed around the turn of the 20th century.

At the time, Federal Street was a major thoroughfare and the Pullen fountain a key landmark in the city. But with the evolution of the urban core, the flow of traffic – four-legged and otherwise – changed or vanished altogether. What was once a major road became a side street with limited access, thanks to the development of Franklin Arterial.

And as a result, the fountain became almost obsolete, and certainly neglected.

That’s why the Portland Public Art Committee stepped up. Beginning in about 2004, the committee began working to restore some dignity to this piece. It removed graffiti and eventually got the water flowing again.

Every year, committee members have tidied it up in the spring, and then put it to bed in the fall. If you walk by it now, you will see that it is barricaded to discourage the plows.

When the work on Pullen Fountain is completed, Federal Street once again will have a sense of monumentality, similar to what it had a century ago.

Much of the work of the committee involves this kind of maintenance and re-visioning of existing pieces. For several years after the committee asserted itself in the early 2000s, committee members did little beyond taking stock of the city’s public art collection and doing due diligence and maintenance.

We usually hear about the committee in association with controversial projects. The debacle at Hadlock Field and the mess down at Boothby Square come first to mind. But it would be unfair and unwise to judge the work of the public art committee based on the projects that are unpopular or badly executed.

Besides, the controversy surrounding the American Baseball Family statue at Hadlock Field could have been avoided altogether had the City Council simply followed the recommendation of the Public Art Committee and rejected the well-intended gift. But that is another story, and not one worth rehashing here and now.

The point is, the Pullen Fountain is on the road to recovery, thanks entirely to the efforts of a group of citizen-volunteers who serve on the public art committee. Next summer, on a warm day, I look forward to hearing the horses return to Federal Street.

No doubt, Stanley Pullen would be proud.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com