Southbank: Friendship Fountain

by Tim Gilmore, 12/14/2015

Was it 1990? Early ’91? I must have been 16. I’d wandered away from a group of friends who gathered for “Vaudeville” every Thursday night outside Rick O’Shea’s Kite Riggers’ kite shop at the eastern end of the Southbank Riverwalk.

Rick O'Shea

Rick O’Shea of Jacksonville’s Kite Riggers, a still from a 2010 video at

There was a girl named Ciara. I remember she had a big Greek nose, black ringleted hair, hoop earrings. I was a skinny kid back then, hair halfway down


Me, 1991, with a friend in Photography class, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.

my back, flannel shirts. It was raining lightly. Ciara and I stopped where the Riverwalk dipped beneath the Main Street Bridge.

There’s a lovely mural there now, Mirrored River it’s called, by Kate Garcia Rouh. It asks its viewers where they see themselves.


My heart beat hard against my delicate ribcage. I don’t remember what we talked about. Ciara soon moved to Seattle, I recall, but when recently I asked old friends who she was, nobody else remembered her. So I wrote about her in a strange little book I didn’t bother promoting called Ghost Story / Love Song.

tintype 14

The woman in a Victorian tintype photograph whom I think of as Ciara. She graces the cover of my book Ghost Story / Love Song.

Another Thursday night I wandered away from Vaudeville, passed beneath the Main Street Bridge, and circled the purple and orange lights that shot through angled jets of water. I don’t think I knew the name of this place was Friendship Fountain.

I talked to an old man on the far side of the lights and water. He sat with his back against the berm. He spoke first.

He asked me about any girls I might like. I said the name, “Ciara.” He looked suddenly confrontational: who did I think I was? He demanded it. I felt more comfortable with him than I did with Ciara and told him I was a poet. That made him laugh.


Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, often used to represent Romantic and Transcendentalist poets and writers like William Wordsworth or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Later when I read Wordsworth and Coleridge and how those Romantics romanticized the poor and the mad in fields and on mountains, I often thought of him.

Frequently, when my daughters were small, I walked them around Friendship Fountain. They loved the roar of the jets of water and the lights blinking blue and then red like watery skyward Christmas lights. We’d stare through the big round windows of the circular pumphouse behind the fountain and watch great wheels and gears turn ghostly like automatons.


courtesy Florida State Archives,

Veda rapidly stamped her feet when the fountain roared to its greatest heights. Emily watched her shadow creep up behind us and toward us. She stamped her feet too and cried, and I carried her in my arms and she buried her face in my shoulder.


courtesy State Archives of Florida,

Back before us, in 1965, “midcentury modern” architect Taylor Hardwick’s design for a fount-centered park reclaimed the polluted downtown riverbank, where bulldozers sent thousands of oil-coated rats scuttling through the weeds and trash and bramble and across the decaying docks and rotten sheds.

The architect’s primary materials were light and water.

The outermost ring of 36 jets shot water inward, the central circle of 24 sent water straight up against the incoming jet dome, the center shot 180 feet straight toward the clouds, and 36 years later, I walked with my little girls between the fountain and the river and they screamed with delight when the winds sprayed the tallest jets across our arms and legs and cheekbones and into our hair.

We never knew the geometries, how wide and deep the pool of water needed to be to equal the height of its central spout. We never knew the architectonics of light and color and water and wind.


courtesy Hardwick & Hardwick’s book Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, 2014

We never knew how City government diluted the original plan. Never with Ciara, never with the old bearded man who laughed at me, never with my daughters did I witness the bleach-white lily pads of concrete umbrellas that covered circular benches on concentric white circles across the ground. We never walked that checkerboard of circles.

We never walked the spiral staircase that could’ve taken us to the circular observation deck beneath that flat “bicycle-wheel” of a roof, from which rose a spire needle-like, topping the Dockmaster’s Building so it resembled a “Space Age” radar dish.


courtesy Hardwick & Hardwick’s book Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, 2014

Sometime between 1965 and my own birth in 1974, the City of Jacksonville (Note the capital letters of governmental entity, as opposed to the real animal that is: “city”-lower-cased…of Jacksonville.) decided to remove the space dish.

In its earliest childhood, Friendship Fountain was better represented by local redneck rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd playing an outdoor Earth Day concert there in 1970 than by 1972 David Bowie lyrics clearly more akin to Hardwick’s Jetsons-like radar dishes and “Space Age” lily pads.


courtesy Hardwick & Hardwick’s book Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, 2014

I can easily imagine one twilight those few years before I was born, I’m there, where I “didn’t know what time it was” and “the lights were low,” and the rock n’ roll coming across my radio “weren’t no D.J., that was hazy cosmic jive.”

Because I’d know, walking with my daughters 30 years before they were born, also before I was, that “a starman waiting in the sky” would “like to come and meet us / But he thinks he’d blow our minds.”

Clearly he was right.

A back-clapping June 2011 celebration capped a $3.2 million City Council-approved renovation. Though Taylor Hardwick attended and spoke, old and in poor health, two and a half years before his death, Friendship Fountain still awaits restoration as his original architectural masterpiece.

I still don’t know who Ciara was. The old man who laughed when I told him I was a poet is probably dead. I’ll never know his name. My daughters are no longer afraid of their shadows but also less excited by tall waters suddenly possessed with brilliant light and color.