Sharring experiences in urban infrastructure delivery.

The Picnic Fountains

By: Tom Davis Category: Sidewalk Art, Sidewalk Fountains

The two “picnic table” fountains were built in the focal point of two quarter-circle benches added to Market Square Park during its restoration in the 1990s. The benches are covered with painted tiles that depict a festive scene. The tiles are embedded in the concrete and were created by and installation overseen then by the artist Malou Flato of Austin, Texas.

CIMG7257.JPGThe “fountains”, added by the Cotswold project about 10 years later, are actually 1-inch deep circular pools with the bottom being more ceramics by Ms. Flato. She created a picnic table setting using the same colors are ceramics she used years before. Again she oversaw the placement of the tiles inside the concrete “table” built by the general contractor. This is a great use of art in a casual setting and very fitting for a neighborhood park.

The water runs over the edge of the pool and falls into a circular well at the sidewalk level. The water enters the pool (pumped from the adjacent mechanical vault below the sidewalk) in the center and creates inside a stainless steel ring that serves as the weir a quiet, thin pool of water with the picnic scene below. The water then falls over the concrete lip of the table into the well below for its return to the vault.


Tile mosaic by Malou Frato under 1" deep water pool

Lesson Learned – Painted-tile mosaic installation in a sidewalk setting that lasts is very difficult to achieve as the art is subjected to many physical and environmental challenges. But, in this case there has been no evidence of deterioration. I believe there are various factors that contributed to that with the most obvious being it is not at sidewalk level where it is walked on or occasionally driven on. A benefit I believe also contributes to the durability that the mosaic is below the pool of water where temperature changes are dampened plus the mortar holding the pieces in place is always wet. Even where the fountain is turned off the pool is not without water the next day. After several days, depending on the weather, the water evaporates.

The original design called for loose, black rounded stone lining the bottom of the circular well. We were very concerned that the stone would soon be removed and could be thrown or obstructions on the sidewalk. So, like we did at the same locations on Main Street one block away, the stones were epoxyed to the concrete in a way that still looked like they were randomly placed at the bottom of the stream.

After the fountain was in operation concerns were raised about someone stepping into the narrow well underneath the lip. The maintenance teams response was to add nice brass grates to cover the well so no one could stumble. The water then fell from the lip of the “table” through the grates–until they were stolen. Now the well is covered by thinner expanded metal painted black. An unfortunate compromise that does not create the “frame” worthy of the picnic table mosaic in the pool immediately above.CIMG7267.JPG

The fountains were built as part of the Cotswold Program by the Houston Downtown Management District and the Public Works and Engineering Department of the City of Houston, They are maintained by the City’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department.


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