Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lotta's Fountain


Thousands of residents and tourists pass a gold-painted decorated column perched on a traffic island at San Francisco’s intersection of Market Street and Kearney every day. It looks completely boring. And judging by the empty water bottles and banana peels stuffed in its bowls, a lot of people think it’s a fancy trash can. Once in a while, a tourist will take a picture of it with a nice view down Market Street, the famous Ferry Building just visible in the background at the end of the street. But San Francisco’s oldest monument, Lotta’s Fountain, has water pipes running inside and a great history.
Charlotte “Lotta” Crabtree started her career dancing on barrel tops and playing her banjo in San Francisco as a teenager during the gold rush. She became wildly famous there, and went on to have a career as a comedian and actress on Vaudeville and other national stages. Crowds, apparently overcome with joy at her performances, threw gold nuggets, coins, and even, once, a $400 gold watch on stage for her. “California’s Diamond” was the most beloved entertainer in the country, the Lucille Ball of her day. She also became the wealthiest, amassing a fortune during her career: those gold nuggets really add up. And though she eventually retired in Boston, she always loved San Francisco, the city upon whose barrel tops she she got her start.
In 1875, after she had retired, Lotta decided to donate a cast iron fountain to San Francisco as a token of friendship. Manufactured on the East Cost (a sure sign of quality in those days), the fountain cost $8,475: $185,000 in today’s dollars. (The average drinking fountain today costs about $3,000. Lotta’s drinking fountain spared no expense.) It was twenty-four feet tall with Griffith-head spouts at drinking height on all four sides. Above the drinking base, a column extended upwards and the whole thing was topped with a lantern, reflecting the fact that both public drinking water and streetlights were rare public goods in that era. On the side, a huge engraving reads, “From Lotta.” (The engraving takes it for granted that everyone will always know Lotta’s name.)
The city held a huge opening ceremony for the fountain on September 9, 1875. The Mayor and city elites showed up, and the streets were packed with thousands of spectators. Lotta’s aunt attended as her representative, taking the first ceremonial sip from the shiny new fountain. (The ceremony echoed earlier English drinking fountain ceremonies: having a high-status woman take the first drink demonstrates the fountain’s safety and  intended use across class lines.) But when the crowd (mostly “idle men from the street”) saw what liquid the fountain was dispensing, mayhem ensued. These idle men were apparently unacquainted with the idea of a drinking fountain, and the fact that they were supposed to drink plain water from it – not something better like beer or gin. All this pomp and circumstance for a fountain with plain old water? Police were summoned to quell the riot. Women and children were shuttled to safety.
But once everyone got used to the idea of a fancy fountain dispensing water, the fountain was a success. This drinking fountain wasn’t shoved off in the corner to the side of better attractions – it was the attraction. Lotta’s fountain began to serve as a major city landmark for early San Francisco. Sited right on Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, it was in the city’s prime real estate, useful to thousands of people each day. Functionally, it dispensed water and light, and aesthetically, it gave San Francisco, a city that has always tried to compete with the greater cities in the East, a bit of cultural polish. Everyone knows that great cities have monuments – and Lotta’s fountain was San Francisco’s first.
Soon enough, the monument gained an added importance: in San Francisco’s massive 1906 earthquake, as most of the city was reduced to rubble and flame, Lotta’s fountain survived unharmed. The twenty-four foot fountain stood alone on market street, surrounded by chaos on all sides – and it continued to dispense water. In the earthquake’s aftermath, the fountain emerged as the symbol of resilience. Every year afterwards, on the earthquake’s April anniversary, earthquake survivors would gather there to lay wreaths at Lotta’s fountain in memory of those who died. Even 110 years later, with no survivors left, the earthquake remembrance continues at Lotta’s fountain as a way to raise awareness for earthquake preparedness.
But Lotta’s Fountain didn’t just sit there unchanged. Looking at historic photos of it in the San Francisco Public Library’s collection is kind of a crazy adventure: every few years, the fountain is different, as though you’re seeing a series of Lotta’s fountains from parallel universes. Drinking cups appear and disappear, separate drinking spigots materialize and vanish, lamps come and go. The most startling change happened in 1916, when the column suddenly grew by eight feet and stayed that way until 1999, when it shrunk back. This was quite confusing to me when I first started looking at the photos. How does a cast iron drinking fountain grow and shrink over time? Digging through newspaper records, I learned that when the city finally constructed the first line of street lights along Market Street, city officials increased the height of the fountain by eight feet so that its top lantern would align with the other street lights. It went from a short column to a towering column. It stayed in its altered state until the historic preservationists got their hands on it and cut it back down to the original size. At the same time, these preservationists removed the drinking fountain spigots with on/off handles that showed up sometime between 1940 and 1964, which had, in turn, replaced the tin drinking cups chained to the fountain, part of the original design and typical of early drinking fountains.
The water itself, harder to see from the photos, has also had a tumultuous history. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the exciting ceremonies when water when restored to the fountain, but not when on when it fell into disrepair. In 1962, the papers reported that the fountain was renovated and drinking water restored. In 1974, the papers reported again that the water had been restored (and that the fountain was moved a few feet to the southeast to accommodate increasing traffic). Accompanying the celebratory article was a photo showing Mayor Diane Feinstein (now a California senator) taking one of the first drinks – strangely, from a glass beer stein, with the fountain completely out of view.
Then, the fountain essentially disappears from the public record until the late 1990s, when Lotta’s Fountain was appropriated by the arts council. A 1998 San Francisco Chronicle article mentions in passing how the water had been shut off in 1975 due to a drought – only one year after the Mayor had celebrated its water being turned back on![2] The 1999 restoration, which reduced the height and removed the tacked-on drinking spigots, half-heartedly restored the water: for so-called special occasions only.
 “‘It will not be a drinking fountain,’ said Debra Lehane, of the San Francisco Arts Commission which owns the fountain. The explanation is typical of modern times. ‘It would have to conform to the health code,’ she said, ‘And that is too complicated.’”[3]
The Arts Commission apparently believed that the only important thing about Lotta’s Fountain, the sole detail worth saving, was its original sculptural design. In actuality, providing fresh water and light were far more revolutionary ideas than the fountain’s fairly bland cast-iron design.
Today, the fountain is dry, and just looks like any other city monument. The drinking cups and drinking spigots, and all signs that anyone has ever been able to quench their thirst at this site, are long gone, and, as the author of Fountains of San Francisco balefully notes, “its function has been denigrated to that of a sometimes refuse bin, an occasional meeting place, and as an interesting monument along a busy downtown street.”[4] CVS and Walgreens stores flank the leftover shell, selling abundant bottled water to the hordes of thirsty tourists. After drinking their expensive water, many of these tourists will toss their empty plastic bottles into Lotta’s basins that used to fill with fresh, free water.

[2] Carl Nolte, “Lotta’s Legacy Lives,” San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, April 15, 1998).
[3] Carl Nolte, “Lotta’s Legacy Lives,” San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, April 15, 1998).
[4] Bernard S. Katz, The Fountains of San Francisco (San Francisco: Don’t Call It Frisco Press, 1989), 12-14.

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