The McKeldin Fountain (dedicated as The Waterfall), which is expected to be demolished in the next year, sits between the northbound and southbound lanes of Light Street at Pratt. Its upper reaches hold the skywalks that once spread across downtown in a network stretching for 10 blocks, allowing tourists to visit conventions and shopping centers without having to walk the streets of Baltimore.
Despite this inauspicious set of poor urban-planning decisions, the fountain itself was crowded on a recent warm day in early fall. Every family that visited stopped to take a photo of themselves in front before bounding up the steps to trace the flow of the water upward. This path was intended by its creator, Thomas Todd of the prolific landscape, planning, and architecture firm Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd, to be reminiscent of a return to the source of the Susquehanna River, on its way to fill the Chesapeake Bay.
McKeldin Plaza, where the fountain sits, is named for former Governor Theodore McKeldin, who presided over the beginning of the Harbor's renewal. As mayor, McKeldin was an early advocate for racial integration in a city that remained starkly segregated. McKeldin fought for the removal of a question about race from all Baltimore City job applications in 1943. He also fought for the inclusion of African-Americans in a new housing construction at Fulton St. on the West Side.
From early October to mid-December 2011, Occupy Baltimore camped in McKeldin Plaza to protest the rising inequality in the distribution of wealth and the exploitative real estate development practices that led to the financial crisis a few years previous. Today, thanks to the efforts of the ACLU, the fountain and plaza are one of only a few "Free Speech Zones" in Baltimore, where limited public protests can take place without an application for a permit in advance.
The destruction of another Brutalist monument is already underway just up the road. The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre is the first victim of what could be seen as a new wave of demolition. "In the end, this mess over the Mechanic represents a growing wave of historic preservation conflicts taking shape across the country. Modernist buildings from the middle of last century are increasingly falling out of fashion and facing the wrecking ball," Baltimore Heritage's Executive Director Johns Hopkins told Urbanite in 2010, when discussing plans to destroy the theater. "In the 1940s and '50s, Victorian buildings like the Engineers Club, the Winans Mansion, and the Marburg Mansion were all considered drop-dead ugly and not worthy of preservation, and those are among our most prized architectural possessions today."
The Mechanic, which turns its back to Charles Street to face an underused plaza in the center of the block, has been vacant since 2004. The theater is due to be replaced by a mixed-use development comprising two apartment towers and a four-story shopping arcade at the base. Developer David S. Brown and the Baltimore Development Corporation have both repeatedly stated that construction will proceed as scheduled, once demolition is done. As the recent financial collapse has shown, a lot can happen between now and opening day, and Baltimore could end up with another vacant lot in the interim period between destruction and development.
Meanwhile, back at the fountain, where there is no funding in place for the construction of any new replacement, attendees at the yearly Otakon convention have started a petition to save the fountain. The Baltimore Book Festival, displaced from Mount Vernon by the reconstruction work on the Washington Monument, has recently brought a new influx of people to the fountain and surrounding plaza, despite the traffic on Light Street.
"This is so cool," one Book Festival visitor said to his friend as they arrived at the skywalk on top. "I never knew this was here."