Streetwise: San Francisco Fountains

by Frank Dunnigan

Public fountains have been civic architectural embellishments since the days of ancient Rome. In San Francisco, such features have long been popular, and increasingly so in the post-1906 rebuilding era when the “City Beautiful” movement was flourishing across the United States. Numerous examples of spraying, bubbling, and cascading water appear in many places — with both classical and contemporary styling — all of them exuding a tranquil vibe. Times change though, and while many of these installations remain, others have disappeared from the landscape for a variety of reasons, including maintenance issues, water conservation, and general operating.


Geary & Market Streets, February 1980.View east on Geary Street from Market and toward Kearny, February 1980. (wnp25.1922; courtesy of a Private Collector)

LOTTA’S FOUNTAIN — This fountain was installed in 1875 at Kearny and Market Streets after a generous gift from actress and philanthropist Lotta Crabtree. It became a focal point of downtown and a meeting place for locals — especially after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when so many other landmarks and street signs were suddenly gone, leaving many residents struggling to find their way around. In 1916, the height of the column was increased to match the height of the new “Path of Gold” streetlights installed on Market Street (shown here in this 1980 image). The drinking fountains were periodically dry over the years from vandalism and other maintenance issues, but those were repaired in 1974 when the monument was moved 10 feet in order to align with Market Street’s refurbished streetlights. In 1998, complete overhaul took place, shortening the monument to its original height and ensuring the flow of water once again. Since 1919, it has been the gathering spot every April 18th for the city’s annual remembrance ceremony for the events of 1906. Read more on Lotta’s Fountain in Woody LaBounty’s article.


Mission and Otis Streets, 1911.Mission and Otis Streets, 1911. (wnp13.037; photo by Turrill & Miller, Courtesy of a Private Collector)

NATIONAL HUMANE ALLIANCE — While some were purely decorative, the National Humane Alliance installed hundreds of working fountains similar to this one across the United States in the early 1900s, for the benefit of horses and dogs in cities. The San Francisco location was originally set to be at the Baker Street entrance to the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, but the Board of Supervisors instead decided to place the gift at the juncture of Duboce Avenue, Mission, and Otis Streets, where it was dedicated on July 3, 1911. A later photo of the fountain dated March 30, 1940 shows it in disrepair and likely facing imminent removal; what happened to it is unknown. Read more about this particular San Francisco fountain.


Market and Battery Streets, November 12, 1912.Market and Battery Streets, November 12, 1912. (wnp36.00246; photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

MECHANICS MONUMENT — The bronze sculpture by noted local artist Douglas Tilden was paid for by James Mervyn Donahue, in memory of his father Peter Donahue. Peter started the Union Iron Works, the first foundry on the west coast. Installed in 1901 as the “Donahue Memorial Fountain,” the sculpture originally sat atop a granite base that was surrounded by a water-filled recirculating pool. Surviving the earthquake and fire of 1906, nearby rebuilding efforts led to the removal of the pool in 1914-15, leaving only the statue and its base. Local sensibilities were originally shocked by the unclad male figures and there were calls for the artist to modify the images by adding bronze trousers, but the initial shock eventually faded.


Embarcadero Plaza, circa 1972.Embarcadero Plaza with Embarcadero Freeway in the background, circa 1972. (wnp25.7028; courtesy of a Private Collector)

VAILLANCOURT FOUNTAIN — One of San Francisco’s most controversial art installations, this fountain near the Ferry Building was designed by French-Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt, who deliberately attempted to replicate the shapes of the adjacent Embarcadero Freeway structure. At the April 1971 dedication, the artist himself spray-painted the words “Quebec Libre” (advocating for the political independence of his Canadian province) onto the fountain. Designed with pedestrian access into the fountain and behind the various streams of running water, it was a highly interactive installation. Over the last 50-plus years, the water has flowed sporadically, due to both mechanical and water conservation issues. It was shut down from 2001-2004 for reasons related to the cost of daily operations, with another multi-year shutdown from 2011-17 during one of California’s droughts. Some have called for the demolition of the sculpture, while the now-94-year-old artist argues that his creation must be preserved in its intended form. There have also been water-quality issues, with various products being used to inhibit the growth of algae from time to time, resulting in public concerns over why the water sometimes appears to have a bright blue or a bright green hue.


Civic Center, May 17, 1915.Civic Center, May 17, 1915. (wnp36.00798; photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

CIVIC CENTER PLAZA #1 — The original design of the post-1906 earthquake/fire Civic Center Plaza included two elaborate fountain structures with mythological figures presiding over a large waterfall set amid a pool on opposite sides of the Plaza (shown here during City Hall construction in 1915). Note the old Hall of Records building in the background. With most of its contents lost to the 1906 fire, the building itself remained in place for a full decade until it was finally demolished in 1916 as the new Civic Center was built out.


Civic Center, April 1953.Civic Center, April 1953. (wnp010.10184; photo by Andrew Brandi / Courtesy of Richard Brandi)

CIVIC CENTER PLAZA #2 — By the early 1930s, the original fountain structures had been removed, leaving the two simple large round pools with a center water spout and edges that easily accommodated seating for passersby, as shown here in 1953. Note the colorful and well-maintained flower beds at the edges of the plaza, as well as the chimney of the Civic Center Power House at the northeast corner of Larkin and McAllister Streets in the background.


Civic Center Plaza, 1970s.Civic Center Plaza, 1970s. (wnp32.2408; courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)

CIVIC CENTER PLAZA #3 — Following construction of an underground parking garage in 1959, the 1930s-era round fountains were removed. A single rectangular fountain with a row of streaming spray jets was installed in the center of the plaza, shown here in the 1970s. These jets were later replaced with a single vertical jet at the center of the fountain before it was shut down and left dry at the time of the 1977 drought. The entire fountain structure was then removed and replaced with a large lawn at the time of the City Hall earthquake retrofit in the early 1990s. In recent years, the lawn was removed and replaced with crushed rock, which the Recreation & Parks website now refers to as the “Decomposed Granite Area” of Civic Center Plaza.


Ghirardelli Square, May 27, 1973.Ghirardelli Square, May 27, 1973. (wnp12.00691; courtesy of David Gallagher)

GHIRARDELLI SQUARE — When Ghirardelli Chocolate’s former factory buildings were redesigned into a bustling complex of shops and restaurants that opened in 1964, the designers reached out to local artist Ruth Asawa to design a centerpiece fountain for the plaza. Dedicated in 1968 as Andrea’s Fountain, this mermaid sculpture remains the center of this water feature, shown here in 1973. Read more about Andrea’s Fountain.


Sydney Walton Square, May 1970.Sydney Walton Square, May 1970. (wnp12.00494; photo by Arthur P. Selleck / Courtesy of David Gallagher)

FOUNTAIN OF FOUR SEASONS — Located in Sydney Walton Square in the Golden Gateway (site of the old San Francisco Produce Market), this sculpture and fountain was designed by German-French artist Francois Stahly. The public-access park, privately owned by the housing development, was created in 1967 as a joint venture between the local government and the operators of the Golden Gateway in order to bring more public art to the area.


Huntington Park, circa 1955.Huntington Park, circa 1955. (wnp100.00645; photo by Lumir Cerny, SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)

HUNTINGTON PARK — Donated in 1942 by Mrs. James Flood (whose name is inscribed around the base), the fountain sits in Huntington Park, with the former Flood Mansion (now the Pacific-Union Club) in the background. The fountain, shown here in 1955, depicts scampering children known as the Three Dancing Sprites. After the 1906 earthquake, the Flood family relocated to a new home at 2222 Broadway — a structure that Mrs. Flood later donated to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1939 for use as a girls’ school. Herb Caen often quoted Mrs. Flood’s joke that she was the only woman in San Francisco who had a daughter born in a men’s club and a son born in a convent.