Seattle — As the Seattle Art Museum opened its sculpture park on the downtown waterfront, occasional breaks of sun through the gray clouds and 40-degree weather gave a glimpse of how the 9-acre park will look on better days.
In a word, spectacular.
Thousands of people strolled a zigzagging path past more than 20 contemporary sculptures between a pavilion a few blocks from the Space Needle and a re-created beach on Puget Sound.
One of the opening day visitors over the weekend was Bill Gates, who called the vista "impressive" and said the park is "a great deal for Seattle."
Gates declined to be an art critic.
"You know my friend Jon Shirley has given a lot of these, and I'm very impressed with all of those," Gates said. "Bagley Wright gave one over there. Paul Allen gave one over there, so I don't know how to pick a favorite."
Shirley is the former Microsoft president and Allen was the co-founder with Gates. Wright is a longtime benefactor of the arts in Seattle.
The $85 million park features sound and mountain views and puts some trees and grass into a densely packed part of the city.
Bridging art and the environment was one of the goals for the park, said museum director Mimi Gates.
"I like to think of Seattle as a place that is very open - a place that encourages innovation and creativity - and I think the park has that feeling to it," she said a couple of days before the opening. "It's a park like no other."
The 2,500-foot path carries visitors past the carefully arranged sculptures. There's not a general on a horse among them.
The biggest is "Wake" by Richard Serra - five rust-colored steel slabs in 14-foot high curves that make people standing next to them feel as if they fell overboard. The 39-foot-tall "Eagle" by Alexander Calder perches on a prominent spot in the middle of the park on reddish-orange scythelike legs that cut through the gray of a winter day.
People driving by can look out their window and see the 19-foot-tall "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Drivers might wonder, what next - a giant bottle of Wite-Out?
The art competes with views of green and white ferries crossing Elliott Bay, the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier looming over downtown skyscrapers.
Museum director Gates says the grass and trees that surround the sculptures create an oasis of calm even as trucks rumble past on Elliott Avenue and freight trains blow their whistles on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.
"I think it says that Seattle is a forward-looking place ... a place that is going to incorporate the environment into the heart of the city," Mimi Gates said. "It's a marriage of art and ecology."
The city can thank the museum for turning an eyesore into a tourist attraction. The site had been a tank farm where fuel was stored and transferred - not very cleanly.
After the facility closed in 1975, the soil was contaminated and the cleanup took years in which passers-by saw only ugly empty lots. A fresh cap of soil, concrete ramps and bridges have transformed the site into an art pedestal.
The park demonstrates the effect of Microsoft money on the city. Only about a fourth of the cost came from taxpayers. Private donors - many with Microsoft connections - made the park and the display of some of the major works possible.