Seattle Arts Commission meets to review last public-sculpture fountain by James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins on March 5, 1974.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 8/16/2018
  • Essay 20622
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On March 5, 1974, the Seattle Arts Commission meets to review a model of the proposed Waterfront Fountain for the new Waterfront Park being developed on the city's downtown piers. As one of his final public-art projects, sculptor James FitzGerald (1910-1973) had completed a conceptual design for a fountain that he envisioned on the Seattle waterfront. Following FitzGerald's death, his widow and lifelong business partner, painter Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002), works to ensure that this final public fountain will be placed as the sculptor intended. Tomkins finishes the casting for the final design of the sculpture. It shows a collection of cubical structures, composed in a vertical design reminiscent of abstract trees and forests, similar in form and material to previous fountains FitzGerald created before it. Tomkins will receive co-credit for the fountain, which will be completed in the fall of 1974, the last one installed in Seattle from a FitzGerald design.

FitzGerald's Fountains of the Northwest

Along with water as an interactive force, natural resources of the Northwest, such as forests, trees, and rocks, were employed as forms in all of James FitzGerald's public-sculpture fountains. The first of these was a bronze outdoor fountain for Washington State College (later University) in Pullman in 1954.

FitzGerald's second fountain was Rain Forest, done in 1959 and installed in 1960 as the first outdoor public work for the Western Washington College (later University) campus in Bellingham. The sculpture at Western showed a bronze-cast vertical form with patterns of bark and appendages that appear as broken tree limbs and water running down its length to the pool, which "echoes the light rain pattern persistent in the Northwest" (WWU Sculpture Collection).

FitzGerald next coordinated with Paul Thiry (1904-1993), the architect hired to supervise development of the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle, to create a permanent public sculpture as part of the Fair's site plan. FitzGerald clearly identified the importance of the conceptual design as part of the creative process, saying "the preliminary design is most critical and time consuming. I required two and one-half months to make and study the models used on the Seattle Civic Center Fountain of the Northwest" (FitzGerald to Anglim). The sculptor then took these intricate wax patterns and cast molded them in French sand, which served as a material that duplicated the exact textures of the wax patterns.

For casting his sculpture molds into bronze for Fountain of the Northwest, FitzGerald first used the services of Leon Morel, a longtime foundry owner in the Seattle area. Using the lost wax method of investment casting, Morel was able to cast all four pieces into bronze for FitzGerald to later weld together back in the studio. The completed fountain was installed in 1961 in the courtyard of the Playhouse Theater (later known as the Intiman Theatre Playhouse and the Cornish Playhouse) and showed the same vertical forest forms and use of water as seen in the Western fountain. Margaret Tomkins described how the casting for this fountain convinced the sculptor to later start his own foundry south of Lake Union in 1964:

"We didn't have our own foundry at that time -- there was an old fellow that used to live out toward Kenmore [Leon Morel], a really skilled caster in lost wax -- and so Jim used to take the investment materials out there, but transporting lost wax investment materials that distance is pretty damaging. So eventually we built our own foundry" (Guenther interview).

FitzGerald's new fountain appeared in the 1962 exhibition catalog Art of the Seattle Center. Also included in the catalog was Tomkins's artwork on display at the Playhouse during the opening of the 1962 World's Fair: an oil-on-canvas painting titled White Umber, which hung in the lobby of the Playhouse for many years afterward.

Fountain of the Northwest in the Playhouse courtyard at the Seattle Center was one of 11 fountains FitzGerald would create. Five more were completed for Seattle alone. The last fountain design cast into bronze at his Seattle foundry under his supervision was made for the Civic Center Waterfront Park in Kirkland, on the east side of Lake Washington, in 1970.

One Last Public Artwork for Seattle

However, the Kirkland fountain was not the last one FitzGerald designed, or that was cast in bronze as a public artwork. Owing to a desire to see her husband's legacy firmly established with one last fountain, Margaret Tomkins continued discussions with the City of Seattle Arts Commission to have FitzGerald's cubical design for a new fountain placed at 1301 Alaska Way, the location of the new Waterfront Park being developed between Piers 57 and 59 on the site of the former Schwabacher Wharf. Another FitzGerald sculpture design, for a 32-foot-high bronze fountain intended for the Alcoa Building in Los Angeles, was never cast.

Tomkins persuaded city arts administrators to go forward with the Waterfront Park sculpture, titled simply Waterfront Fountain, on the condition that she would be responsible for the bronze casting process to create the fountain's sculptural elements. The bronze casting was done at the FitzGerald foundry using several patterns made by Tomkins and Terry Copple (1945-1996), one of FitzGerald's studio assistants, who also undertook the final finishing work of the bronze. Concurrent with the studio's work, park construction begun in the fall of 1973 with the addition of new pier pilings. With progress on the new park site continuing at a steady pace, the Seattle Arts Commission scheduled a meeting for March 5, 1974, to view a model of FitzGerald's fountain design. Before the end of the month, on March 29, the first concrete forms for the new park were in place.

Seattle arts patron Helen Harrington Schiff (1894-1980) sponsored the $75,000 expense of the casting process and donated the finished fountain in memory of her parents Edward (1867-1933) and Margaret (1874-1966) Harrington. Following its donation, it became part of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Collection.

The design was arguably one of the most abstractly rendered of FitzGerald's career, with angular columns and interlocking beams with platforms, the entire assembly a forest of right angles draped in falling water cascading over the top and ends to spill down the sides in torrents to a concrete collecting pool. The fountain measured 16.5 feet high and 21 feet long overall, weighed 6,000 pounds, and was plumbed for the 1,200-gallon-per-minute water supply as envisioned by FitzGerald. Red rocks originally set into the pool's surface were gathered by daughters Miro and Gala from Tomkins' Lopez Island studio beach and incorporated into the design. The fountain was celebrated at the official opening of Waterfront Park to the public on October 25, 1974.

Shortly after the dedication of the new fountain, Tomkins closed the FitzGerald foundry and relocated to her studio on Lopez Island, where the family had had a home since the 1940s.


WWU Sculpture Collection (Bellingham: College of Fine and Performing Arts, Western Washington University, 2018); James FitzGerald to Paule M. Anglim, January 21, 1963, Folder 12, Box 1, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Margaret Tomkins to Jo Nilsson, August 25, 1977, Folder 14, Box 1, Acc. 2848-002, James FitzGerald and Margaret Tomkins Papers, University of Washington Libraries; Bruce Guenther interview with Margaret Tomkins, June 6, 1984, transcript available at Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art website accessed July 15, 2018 (; "Commission Meets Tuesday," The Seattle Times, March 1, 1974, Tempo, p. 7; Polly Lane, "City Dedicates Its Waterfront Park Friday," The Seattle Times, October 20, 1974, p. E-1; Fred Poyner IV, Seattle Public Sculptors -- Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Company, 2017).

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