Architects, historians, and preservationists frequently debate a concept they call "a sense of place." You'll find lengthy studies on the subject in the best scholarly journals, monographs, and dissertations. Professionals ponder the idea in an attempt to distill its components and formulate a recipe for perfect new and revitalized urban environments that recall all that we cherish from our childhood neighborhoods, public places, and marketplaces. Now, to the average Boulderite, this concept isn't hard to define. Ask her to define "a sense of place" and she might take you for a stroll along the Pearl Street Mall. And she might stop to sit down, chat, and look around on a bench bordering the Lions Club Fountain on a plaza just south of the county court house. This spot, slightly removed from the hubbub of shoppers, could well be the Pearl Street Mall's center of gravity.
The Boulder County Court House's south plaza borders the Pearl Street Mall midway between 13th and 14th Streets. As the plaza's centerpiece, the 1935 Lions Club Fountain visually connects two separate but compatible public realms. On one side is the busy east-west pedestrian thoroughfare lined with late eighteenth and early nineteenth century storefronts. On the other sits the stately, almost severe, Art Deco court house. The fountain bridges these commercial and governmental spaces visually by mimicking the court house's terraced architectural style on a smaller, human scale. Placed amid lush gardens, brick-paved walkways, and irregular lawns, the gleaming white, circular, terra cotta water fountain affords shoppers, county employees, and court house visitors a common area for relaxation or people watching.
But this unique public square's success came with a price. Its popularity and overuse resulted in maintenance problems, vandalism, and safety troubles. Its terra cotta blocks had lost their finish and exhibited the effects of sixty-odd winters. Previous repair jobs to the spray bars altered the original water effects and the interior structure had deteriorated, causing some of the terra cotta blocks to shift. By the 1980s, the fountain had stopped functioning and was being used as a planter.
In 1996 Boulder County applied for a $35,000 State Historical Fund grant to repair and restore the beloved Boulder landmark. Though the Fund usually helps to rehabilitate buildings, not fountains or sculptures, decision makers backed the project due to the fountain's exceptional historical and architectural significance (the Lions Club agreed, and pitched in another $1,500). After the original Victorian-style county court house burned down in 1932, Glen Huntington designed its replacement in the still-modern Art Deco mode. He designed the fountain at the same time. The court house is now individually eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and the fountain is considered to be a contributing element to the site. The entire Downtown Boulder Pedestrian Mall Historic District is also listed in the Register.
The Boulder County Architects Division began the project by disassembling the fountain's terra cotta blocks. They meticulously numbered, measured, and drew each piece so that they could reassemble the structure after preservation work had been completed. Most of the original blocks were either retained or repaired. Those that could not be repaired were reproduced in Ohio according to the measurements, drawings, and historic documentation. Preservationists used old photographs to restore the spray bars and replicate the original spray pattern. Architects also designed a high-tech system that monitors wind speed on the plaza and adjusts water pressure and spray levels to make sure passers by don't get wet when Boulder's notorious wind blows.
The Lions Club Fountain preservation project, upon completion in 1998, wrapped up a $400,000 renovation of the entire court house plaza. Every day, the fountain and the public square draw visitors from the mall, court house, and surrounding area. Demonstrations are frequently held there, as are dances, festivals, and craft shows. The plaza facilitates Boulder's public life. And perhaps that, in the end, is what defines a sense of place.