Fort Worth

The Fort Worth Water Gardens at 40

In the hidden corners of the Fort Worth Water Gardens, there is still an opportunity to take a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. On a weekday stroll through the 4 1/2-acre park, people can be seen reading books, checking their phones or simply staring into the cascading water.

At it turns 40 on Sunday, this middle-aged landmark has carved out a memorable, if complicated, legacy — one dotted by triumph and tragedy, notoriety and relative obscurity.

A creation of the famed architect Philip Johnson, who also designed the original Amon Carter Museum of Art, the Water Gardens is a wonderland hidden in plain sight at the southern end of downtown — so much so that many longtime residents confess to never having been there. If they have, it was only because they’d heard the 1976 sci-fi movie Logan’s Run filmed some scenes there, and curiosity got the better of them.

In a city like Fort Worth, which prides itself on championing cultural treasures — from its world-class museums to the new Sundance Square Plaza — the Water Gardens remains a rushing monument to misunderstood beauty.

But there are signs it could be poised for a higher profile in its next 40 years.

With the Omni hotel on one side and the Texas A&M Law School on the other, the Water Gardens is no longer a ghost town as it was 20 or 30 years ago. And when the Fort Worth Convention Center was expanded, a direct entrance to the Water Gardens provided more access.

“I didn’t expect to see something like this here in Fort Worth, honestly,” said Adam Kulikowski, who was visiting from Chicago. “It’s expansive. It’s really beautiful. It gives you time to reflect. If I worked around here, I would probably lunch here every day.”

Yet while tourists regularly check out the public space, it still isn’t being used enough by locals, and Mayor Betsy Price hopes to change that.

“I think it is coming along, but I don’t think it is utilized near to its full potential,” Price said. “It is a beautiful park, beautiful facility for the city. It is a little bit blocked by Lancaster [Avenue], but ultimately when the Lancaster development comes about, we will open that up and more people will realize it.”

Price said the Water Gardens needs more events like the Oct. 30 “Spooky Bike & Ball” ride to bring people to the Water Gardens. That event will include one of the mayor’s “Rolling Town Hall” bike rides, along with food trucks and live music.

Beauty amid blight

Originally a gift to the city from the Amon Carter Foundation, the park was designed to usher in a new era on the southern end of downtown.

Gone were seedy pawnshops and run-down motels.

“There was the immediate hope that we could turn that blight into something beautiful rather than let it continue to fall down in that area,” said the late Ruth Carter Stevenson, daughter of Amon G. Carter Sr., in the 1984 documentary Water Garden. (The documentary will air again on KERA at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 26.)

So Johnson was brought in, and he wanted to build something that would be set apart from the rest of the city, even though it was in the middle of downtown.

“The whole point of the water was to create something that would keep people coming back and back,” Johnson says in the documentary.

What he created was an austere concrete-filled park teeming with water. There’s an active pool, designed to look like “a canyon with rushing water,” and a sunken quiet pool, perfect for calm reflection.

Those early years saw performances by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) One O’Clock Lab Band. The Gardens’ futuristic look also proved to be the perfect backdrop for scenes from Logan’s Run, which starred Michael York, Peter Ustinov and Jenny Agutter.

But the gift also burdened the city.

“The economy tanked in the ’80s, and the city couldn’t afford it,” Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown said. “It just really went through a quiet period in the ’80s and early ’90s. I think everybody knew about the maintenance issues and the fact the city just couldn’t afford it.”

Tragedies strike

Beyond the financial woes, the Water Gardens has its share of painful memories.

Six people have died at the park. Two patrons were killed by a falling light pole in 1991, and three children and one adult drowned on June 16, 2004.

In the 2004 case, the city would settle with the families of the victims, who were attending a church convention. But former Mayor Mike Moncrief said that “those were some dark days, some very dark days.

“We learned some painful lessons.”

After the tragedy, some called for demolishing the Water Gardens.

“There were cries of ‘Plow it under and make a parking lot of out of it,’ ” Moncrief said. “There were people who wanted to eliminate the possible danger of having another tragedy, but cooler heads prevailed. The mindset was to fix the problem, not eliminate a gift to the city from the Amon Carter Foundation.”

When the Water Gardens fully reopened in 2007, it had new railings and signs warning against swimming or wading in the waters. While the Water Gardens would still be a refuge, it would no longer be a place to cool off.

Keeping the water flowing

A decade after the drownings, the Water Gardens has never fully recovered from the stigma. Most days, the park is enjoyed by a few locals who know it’s there and appreciate its beauty — or by downtown tourists who happen upon it.

But Price said the city is committed to keeping the park in good shape.

“It was all redone after that tragedy several years ago and is well-funded now,” Price said. “It is a great asset for the city and everybody loves it. We just need more people to enjoy it.”

The Amon Carter Foundation no longer plays an active role in the Water Gardens and directed all questions about the park’s future to Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

He said that as the southern end of downtown keeps developing, he expects more people to discover the Water Gardens.

“There are things happening around the Water Gardens that will ultimately lead to more patronage,” Taft said. “We are currently talking about things that could be done that might be more family-friendly.”

Kathryn Holliday, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, has studied the Water Gardens and said many of these ’70s-era public spaces have faced similar challenges nationwide. Water features are often complicated structures that face both safety and maintenance issues.

“Fort Worth is not alone in that,” Holliday said.

As the park reaches its 40th birthday, Holliday said, it’s a good time to determine how the Water Gardens fits into today’s connected society.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to do a more rigorous study about what’s working and what could be better,” Holliday said.

Staff writer Caty Hirst contributed to this report.