Most of us take our public fountains for granted. They serve as guiding landmarks, community hangout spots, and aesthetically-pleasing additions to public spaces. But in San Francisco, public fountains aren’t just splashy statues; they’re historical monuments that veer into art and intersect with culture. For residents, it can be all too easy to pass by a fountain with barely a glance — but they are worth stopping for!
This weekend, set aside a few hours to explore San Francisco and learn more about its incredible fountains!
This fountain is generally accepted as the oldest surviving monument in San Francisco. Charlotte “Lotta” Mignon Crabtree, one of the city’s most celebrated stage performers, donated the structure in 1875. She spared no expense in bringing the ornate installment to San Francisco; the structure itself was cast in Philadelphia and shipped to San Francisco along via an 18,000-mile voyage around Cape Horn. Upon arrival, the fountain was reassembled and placed at the convergence of Market, Geary, and Kearny Streets.
It remained untouched until 1999, when the city launched a restoration effort to remove corroded iron from the structure’s interior. The repair process took four months and $160,000. Today, Lotta’s Fountain still stands as one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.
You can find San Francisco’s Origami Fountains in the heart of the Nihonmachi Pedestrian Mall in Japantown. These two fountains were shaped from corten steel into lotuses by sculpture artist Ruth Asawa in 1974. Both statues had severely deteriorated by the mid-1990s; however, Asawa’s work as an advocate for both the arts and the city’s Japanese community was so widely appreciated that she had little trouble collecting the funds and support necessary to recast the fountains in longer-lasting bronze.
Also designed by Ruth Asawa, Andrea’s Fountain stands at the center of Ghirardelli Square within the historic Fisherman’s Wharf district. The fountain encompasses a fantastical sea scene of turtles, frogs, and several mermaids. Of her intentions for the fountain, Asawa wrote:
“For the old, it would bring back the fantasy of their childhood, and for the young, it would give them something to remember when they grow old! I wanted to make something related to the sea…I thought of all the children, and maybe even some adults, who would stand by the seashore waiting for a turtle or a mermaid to appear. As you look at the sculpture, you include the Bay view, which was saved for all of us, and you wonder what lies below that surface.”
Asawa’s work to preserve fantasy even against the passing of time appears to have worked; though the fountain saw its 50th-anniversary last year, countless visitors still enjoy the fountain daily.
Who doesn’t love a good Star Wars reference? This two-foot-tall bronze fountain stands just outside the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. Since its installment in 2005, this nerd-friendly figure has attracted hordes of fans every day. Those who stop by to see Yoda may also choose to check out the nearby Lucasfilm lobby, which offers visitors a chance to explore the studio’s collection of Star Wars memorabilia.
The Vaillancourt Fountain may not be the prettiest structure in town, but it will certainly start a conversation. The industrial-seeming, geometrical structure was designed by Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt as a host site for protest and dissent. It originally stood beside the similarly industrial Embarcadero Freeway, almost seeming to sprout from the roadway. However, once the Loma Prieta earthquake crippled enough of the freeway to warrant the road’s removal, the statue stood alone — without the urban structure that gave it context. The fountain has been a subject of controversy for several reasons; few people love the design or the operating costs it poses. The fountain came close to being shut down a few years ago before private backers offered to underwrite its water expenses.
Visit the fountain to develop your own perspective on the matter! You can find the Vaillancourt Fountain inside the Justin Herman Plaza on Market Street.
San Francisco’s fountains are quirky, controversial, artistic, and, most of all, worth your time.
Which one is your favorite?