Issue August 13, 2008

Falls Fountain Flashback

TWENTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, LOUISVILLE WAS UNDERWHELMED BY A SORTA-FANCY FOUNTAIN IN THE RIVER, PROVING THAT GIMMICKS DON’T ACTUALLY WORK

Twenty years ago, Barry Bingham Sr. bought Louisville a giant fountain. The citizens responded, “No thanks; we’re cool.”

Aug. 19, 2008 — As the city prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Louisville Falls Fountain, Mayor Jerry Abramson today announced several enhancements to the beloved landmark. “The fountain is going green,” he said. “The pumps will be powered by an array of solar- and river-current-generated power, meaning the fountain’s operation will be cost-free and carbon-neutral.” 

The news caps a big week for the Falls Fountain, which is widely credited for revitalizing the city and bringing millions of tourism dollars to Louisville each year. On Monday night, before a nationwide audience of 60 million people, the fountain won the American Icon reality-TV program, defeating Seattle’s Space Needle, St. Louis’s Arch and Springfield’s Monorail for top city landmark in America …

And then, deep in his comfy confines in Cave Hill cemetery, Barry Bingham Sr. rolled over and drifted into a pleasant dream about the delicious, never-ending, obscene profitability of print journalism … 

OK, so that’s not how it went down. 

Twenty years ago this week, tens of thousands of bright-eyed Louisvillians and their out-of-town guests gathered at the waterfront to watch the dedication and opening spray of the Louisville Falls Fountain. The “inaugural squirt,” as The Courier-Journal’s Bob Hill called it, was the crowning moment of years of planning and 2.6 million of media-baron Bingham’s bucks to bring to town the world’s largest floating fountain. 

It was an idea with so much promise. The Louisville waterfront — home to scrapyards, floating debris, abandoned bridges and the intersection of three carbon-belching interstate highways — needed an extreme makeover. The river, famously one mile wide, had ample room for some kind of grand spectacle. And Bingham, whose family had recently unloaded its media empire, had some benjamins burning a hole. 

For a couple of decades, the idea of a fountain on the Louisville waterfront had been tossed around by city big shots. Bingham and his wife, Mary, had been impressed with the Jet d’Eau fountain in Geneva, Switzerland, and thought such a fountain would be perfect for Louisville. The Jet d’Eau sprays water 140 meters (that’s 460 feet American) into the Swiss sky, and had become as synonymous with Geneva as fine watches, gourmet chocolate and human rights for prisoners of war. 

Of course we’d need to make our fountain a little snazzier, so the Falls Fountain design included a rotating series of water patterns, culminating in the city’s symbol (and everyone’s favorite tattoo), the fleur-de-lis. The fountain also basked in a revolving colored-light display at night, letting drivers on the interstate know they were speeding through a whole bunch of world-classness. 

Nothing on the fountain exploded (intentionally) and there was no country music or classic rock, but then this was the pre-Thunder era — a simpler time. Perhaps that lack of firepower was a harbinger of the fountain’s tortured future.

Money to spritz

So, how does a brilliant and savvy media mogul like Barry Bingham end up spraying $2.6 million into the stagnant Ohio River air? For those of you reading this on your Hello Kitty iPhone 3Gs, a bit of background is in order. Newspapers (a portmanteau of “news” and “paper”) are sheets of paper with news stories printed on them. These newspapers are often distributed directly to homes or purchased at drug emporia and bookstores (a portmanteau of “book” and “store,” which are two other anachronistic forms of non-multimedia). 

One unusual custom of newspapers is that they are put together with some planning, thought and careful craftsmanship, giving some of them a depth of professionalism not usually seen in most media. Think of newspapers like blogs — if blogs were reported first-hand, edited, fact-checked, proofread and held to a minimum standard of decorum, then printed and delivered to readers’ homes each morning. Jesus Pete, who’s got time for all that, right? 

Many years ago newspapers were an important source of information, but what you might not know is that newspapers still exist today. (In fact, this website actually has a print version you might have seen in some of Louisville’s finer saloons and coffee shops.) Despite the unwieldy and expensive nature of this form of news delivery, newspapers were once wildly profitable. 

Because radio and television news are silly, superficial, infotainment versions of newspapers, and because the web was still many years in the future, anybody who wanted to know anything back in those days subscribed to the newspaper. In Louisville, that meant reading The Courier-Journal, a nationally renowned newspaper that set the city’s agenda and won numerous Pulitzer Prizes before Bingham sold it to the Gannett Co. and it slowly began its long march to becoming the elderly person’s go-to source for Sudoku, “Ziggy,” Yum talking points and copy ’n’ pasted Internet blurbs on the derring-do of Carrot Top and Orlando Bloom.

Because The Courier-Journal was indispensable, Bingham could — and did — charge obscene rates for advertising, bringing in train cars of cash for decades. For many, that would have been a time for contemplatively lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills and laughing maniacally while having their enemies killed, but not for the Binghams. They got busy parlaying their media money into even more media money. 

At the height of its power, the family owned WHAS radio and WHAS-TV, plus Standard Gravure, a company that specialized in the kind of printing that makes Sunday-insert bra ads highly appealing to both women and men. With the newspaper, TV, radio and bra-ad markets locked up, the Binghams lovingly and profitably sprinkled an admiring audience with news until 1986, when a family slugfest forced the sale of the media empire and brought to Louisville two names synonymous with the fall of Western civilization: Gannett and Clear Channel. 

Whereas Clear Channel is responsible for most Americans hearing the same 20 songs and right-wing bile over and over again, the left-leaning Binghams repeatedly presented Louisville with investigative, statewide reporting and progressive editorial-page viewpoints. And unlike those shitty songs, the ideas were good ones: social justice, civil rights, education, support for the library and the performing arts, and other concepts that are out of fashion today. 

But the sale left the Binghams with a voluminous wad of cash and, in the customary style of the elderly rich, Barry and Mary created the Bingham Fund, which began bestowing an impressive $60 million upon the city, according to the Louisville Encyclopedia. The fund contributed desperately needed money to all of the same liberal causes Bingham’s media properties touted. 

And it built a fountain. 

Spritzibility City

Despite the humiliating lack of a functioning fountain in our river for most of the past two decades, downtown Louisville has improved substantially since the mid-80s, achieving a remarkable revitalization that Bingham and other civic leaders hoped the fountain would spur. Back then, the city’s east, south and west ends, and the Indiana ’burbs, felt like self-contained towns, separated by a downtown where lawyers and brokers went from 9-to-5 to amass their fortunes, and where discerning shoppers browsed for wigs and Prince records. The ill-fated River City Mall and Galleria were poster children for bad urban planning.

The world’s largest fleur-de-lis ejaculation, city fathers reasoned, would squirt life into downtown, spray it with some sweet tourism nectar and become a source of pride for people citywide. Of course, nowhere has the city changed more in the ensuing years than on the waterfront. Today, with 85 acres of parkland in various stages of development; apartments, condos and retail sprouting everywhere; the iffy but promising Museum Plaza and arena projects; and frequent concerts and Louisville Slugger Field lighting up the summertime skies, it’s hard to imagine just what a dump the riverfront was back in those days. 

Sharon Receveur, who was the city’s archivist at the time, says that like many cities, Louisville had turned its back on its waterfront. “We had effectively shut ourselves off from the river by the construction of the expressway,” she says. “With the exception of going for rides on the Belle or eating at that pink, floating restaurant — The Islands — nobody ever went to the river. And after 5 o’clock it was roll-up-the-sidewalk dead at night.”

Receveur points out that many other cities turned away from their waterfronts. “Some cities did the same thing and later corrected it — or tried to — like Boston did with their Big Dig. At that time we had just begun looking toward the river and remembering it’s the reason the city is here.” 

With nothing much on the waterfront besides scrapyards, industry and I-64, the fountain had a whole lot of ugly to contend with all by itself. Perhaps the fountain was in some way the catalyst that sparked all of the downtown development since. Or maybe it was just a sometimes-pretty cake in a mile-wide urinal. Either way, it was too much to expect the fountain alone to make the waterfront welcoming. And it was a bit over-the-top to expect it to symbolize Louisville.

Besides, we had the Derby. And the city was still a little high from the intense serotonin buzz induced by Jeff Hall’s “pass” to Pervis Ellison for the bucket that sealed the 1986 NCAA championship. But we needed something sparkly and pretty to make life worth living each year from Derby until hoops season started in the fall. The fountain, which would operate from May to November, was billed as just the ticket. 

For rich white guys, it was a time of hope. Reaganomics had ensured that economics trickled up, and Wall Street slimeballs like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken had yuppies believing greed was good. And out of nowhere an alarming preponderance of horrible mistakes like Dan Quayle, Saddam Hussein and power-suit shoulder pads began to appear. Could the Falls Fountain buck that trend? Thousands, including Kentucky Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, County Judge-Executive Harvey Sloane, U.S. Rep. Ron Mazzoli and Mayor Jerry Abramson joined tens of thousands of excited revelers on the riverfront on Aug. 19, 1988 to find out. 

Thanks in part to the Binghams’ various media connections and to the buy-in from local big shots like Louisville Central Area chairman and banker Dan Ulmer, the advance hype for the fountain was out of control. Better than canned beer, sliced bread and crack cocaine combined, the fountain would keep your floors sparkling and your coat shiny, and alleviate your bitter self-loathing and crushing ennui. 

A search of the 1988 Courier-Journal archives for “Falls Fountain” turns up 23 stories between Aug. 1 and 19. The fountain PR team promised a city icon to rival the Eiffel Tower. Shops and restaurants rolled out their red carpets. The C-J’s Sarah Fritschner gushed about the $14.95 “Falls Fountain Special” menu available at downtown’s upscale restaurants, including Vincenzo’s, Café Napoli, Casa Grisanti, Sixth Avenue, Kunz’s and others. Outside, while waiting for Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare of the Common Man” — the pre-ordained musical accompaniment — to begin, the hoi polloi dined on elephant ears and corndogs. People were pumped. 

Louisville resident Todd Pharris watched the celebration from the closed Second Street Bridge with his friends that night. Pharris, an admitted fountain skeptic, says the hype was a big part of the letdown. “The public was told to expect something comparable to the St. Louis Arch, but I wasn’t crazy enough to fall for that,” he says. “I did, however, expect it to not be an absolute debacle.” 

When asked what the crowd reaction was like when the fountain came to life, Pharris says, “It was an absolute debacle. There was a palpable group disappointment. It’s not like there was a chorus of boos, just a collective ‘ehh’ followed by everyone dejectedly walking back to their cars.” 

From bad to worse 

Not everyone was disappointed with the fountain’s debut. News accounts reported many glowing reviews the next day. But the fountain seemed screwed almost immediately. The day after the big party, it was turned off for planned work, but the outage left those who weren’t willing to brave the previous night’s crowds — or those from the crowd who wanted another look — disappointed. And the whole spectacle was haunted by the ghost of Barry Bingham Sr., who tragically died of brain cancer the previous Monday, just four days before the ceremony. 

But the biggest problem for the fountain was that it didn’t live up to the hype. By all accounts, it was gorgeous — sorta. When it got around to its fleur-de-lis pattern and the wind was still, it was pretty impressive. At night, especially when bathed in white light, it was a little bit holy. But the rest of the time it looked like a military mistake, the heavy-metal lovechild of R2-D2 and a lawn sprinkler. “The base was hideous looking for something that stuck so far out of the water,” Pharris says. “They could have painted it Ralston-Purina silos style.”

Compounding the problem was the river’s vastness. From the fountain’s perch halfway to Indiana, it was impossible to tell that its spray shot as high as the Humana building. Instead, from that great distance, it seemed not all that grander than some other fountains that were sprouting up in some of Louisville’s tonier subdivisions. And, in times of inclement weather, the fountain had to be shut down. 

Well aware of the less-than-enthusiastic welcome and disappointed in the overall look and performance of the fountain, a new Falls Fountain Committee made some changes in 1992. They hired an artist to camouflage the base, and moved it 500 feet closer to shore and 1,000 feet closer to the bridge. But for many it was too little, too late. “I never really thought much about it after that,” Pharris says. “I think it was 2002 before I realized it wasn’t there anymore.”

Cursed, unloved, down on its luck and abandoned by all of its champions, the fountain fell on hard times. When bad weather didn’t shut it down, clogged filters did. The money the Binghams provided in escrow to maintain the fountain couldn’t keep pace with the cost of electricity, winter storage and repairs. In 1998, the fountain was arrested for lewd conduct in a public place with a prostitute … oh no, wait. That was Hugh Grant. Sorry. In 1998, the $150,000 main pump exploded and the Louisville Falls Fountain was no more. It was sold for scrap in 2001 — for a whopping $15,750. 

Although it was sold for its scrap value, the fountain wasn’t melted down and poured into fleur-de-lis ingots to sell at the world-classness booth at the State Fair like you might expect. Mike Stamper, who bought the fountain, still owns it. “The fountain is still in the river,” says Stamper, of Mobile Maintenance and Repair in Borden, Ind. Stamper says age has gotten to the fountain, but its scrap value is still intact and he will eventually get around to scrapping it out. “It’s a backburner project,” he says.

World-class is as
world-class does 

Unlike some cities, Louisville defies psychoanalysis. Sure, New Yorkers are pushy, San Franciscans are flaky, Houstonians are obese and Bostonians are constipated. But people have been trying to pigeonhole Louisvillians forever and it just can’t be done. Living in a large town or a small city — or whatever we are — you’re never exactly sure of your identity. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to develop a year-round signature attraction. 

Or maybe next time we should just make sure we don’t develop something mechanical. The Derby Clock never could quite engage the city’s imagination and succumbed to mechanical problems. (The clock is currently at Bowman Field undergoing restoration in hopes of a triumphant return.) A rock might be a good choice. But our best shot at that — the Indian Head Rock — seems to have been heisted by those thieving bastards from Portsmouth, Ohio. 

Perhaps the Louisville Falls Fountain offers a lesson to civic leaders: Don’t over-hype your project. The PR blitz ahead of the fountain’s launch was so overwrought, the fountain couldn’t have lived up to expectations even if it sprayed free Makers into to-go cups on the Belvedere. The city keeps breaking the only rule of world-classness: If you have to say it’s world-class, it probably isn’t. 

And then there’s the problem of funneling millions of dollars into tourist attractions that could be better spent on much-needed infrastructure or social services. True, Bingham’s fountain was a gift to the city paid for with years of accumulated advertising money. Cheerful malcontents might point out that really just means that Bingham’s advertisers — Stewart’s, Bacon’s, Shillitos and Byck’s; Kroger, Winn-Dixie, Allied Sporting Goods and Ken Towery’s Firestone — paid for the fountain. Which, of course, means the people who patronized those advertisers paid for the fountain. Which means you and your parents and your grandparents paid for the fountain. But this is America and that’s how we roll. We give clever entrepreneurs all our money and all our worship. Besides, Bingham could’ve blown the money on hookers and Dom Perignon. Really, it’s the thought that counts. 

Sharon Receveur takes a less jaundiced view. “The Binghams were brave and generous to have provided the fountain, which was clearly a very noble experiment — and I thought it was a very entertaining one,” she says. If it had worked and been supported it might well have become an icon of the city.

“The generosity of the Binghams is legendary. They tried to create something that was emblematic. Let’s remember that all the other cities were trying to create something that would shout the name of their city. In my humble opinion, we were trying to imitate others. I don’t think we’re doing that anymore. We took bold steps with the Presbyterian Church, the airport, merger. … There were huge successes in the past 20 years. We’re not in that spot anymore. The city embraced Jerry (Abramson)’s notion that you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” 

Ever optimistic, Louisvillians seem to look on the bright side. On whether Bingham’s $2.6 million Falls Fountain investment was a waste of precious money, Todd Pharris has this to say: “At least it didn’t go to Lexington.”