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Tom Harper: Lawrence train depot fountain is a misfit (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The city has finished the nine-month-long rebuild of the fountain next to the historic Santa Fe/Amtrak depot in East Lawrence. Now that it’s finally completed, be sure to stop by to see it — before it is removed.

And therein lies a tale.

The sculpted new fountain is … unusual. It mostly looks like a gnarly, whitewashed tree stump. A work of art it is not. But that’s partly because nobody is really sure what the fountain — versions of which have come and gone at that spot for well more than a century — is really supposed to look like.

Tom Harper / The Lawrence Times The fountain at the Amtrak/Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence, Oct. 5, 2021

As Derek Rogers, Director of the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the fountain and contracted with the builder, says: “This was not what we thought we were getting. We want something here that everyone can be proud of.” 

Passersby have expressed dismay and outrage over the misfit fountain, though some have come to appreciate it for its very oddness. Others have taken special interest in the fountain due to their involvement with the multi-year process to preserve the depot. I view the fountain as an embarrassment that does not complement our historic midcentury depot.

The fountain contractor was tasked with recreating the fountain from an old postcard image of the original depot, which was constructed in 1883. The postcard is shown below.

Local historian Carol Guy recently posted another early photo of the fountain, with the old Santa Fe depot in the background, on a local Facebook page. That photograph provides a better view, but it’s still difficult to make out the details. 

Contributed Image
Contributed Photo

The Parks and Recreation Department wants to get the fountain right, and has committed to doing more research on the design of the original fountain. In the meantime, in coming weeks, the “new” fountain will be removed and its pump will be installed underground. Right now, the pump is in a Styrofoam box coated with a rubber-like material below the sculpture. 

The plan is to dismantle the fountain, winterize it, put the pump underneath the fountain, and fabricate a copper ring that will direct water toward the center — a simple, traditional fountain that can accommodate a sculpture at a later date.

Some people are advocating for a modern, stationary sculpture at the site, replacing the entire fountain. There are many attractive outdoor sculptures to use as examples: The sculpture in front of the depot in North Lawrence by Shellie Benders, named “Mobility,” or the recently installed sculpture at the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County by Jacob Burmood, named “Paradoxical Synapse.”

There is also discussion about creating a sculpture that could be placed in the middle of the fountain and could withstand water. Or perhaps the fountain space could be used for temporary sculptures, like the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission’s successful annual Outdoor Downtown Sculpture Exhibition. 

Fortunately, the depot will soon be an integral destination point on the Lawrence Loop. This area will be a place for our community to gather. I hope the next version of the fountain can be a modern focal point that complements the depot, respects its history, and communicates who we are as a community and to all who visit our city.

About the writer
About the writer


Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.

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