Fate of the fountain

A fountain built at a pivotal moment in the capital city’s history is slated for demolition. Can history fans in Sacramento save it?

The Capitol Fountain has been sitting dormant for nearly a decade, but rather than restore it, the Department of General Services wants to raze the landmark for good.

The Capitol Fountain has been sitting dormant for nearly a decade, but rather than restore it, the Department of General Services wants to raze the landmark for good.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

In 1927, newspapers were heralding Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking solo flight across the Atlantic, The Jazz Singer was the first motion picture with sound and President Calvin Coolidge announced he wasn’t running for a second term because a decade in Washington, D.C. was “too long.”

And in Sacramento that year, in an open courtyard between Ninth and 10th streets, a stone and tile fountain was unveiled as part of an effort to make sure the city remained the capital of California.

That classic water spring is now slated for demolition by state officials. But the city’s diehard history lovers say that won’t happen without a fight.

According to Preservation Sacramento, the fountain was a response to a 1910 effort by San Francisco to supplant the city, then a modest agricultural hub, as the new state capital. It was no idle threat: During the Gold Rush era, California’s capital started at San Jose, then moved to Vallejo, then again to Benicia. Though a state constitutional convention in 1879 deemed Sacramento the permanent capital, by the turn of the century San Francisco was in an alarmingly good position to swipe that honor. Sacramentans realized an array of offices for the growing state government were moving to the city by the Bay, mainly due to the limited size of the Capitol building.

Sacramento residents decided to head off San Francisco’s designs in 1913. Locals approved $700,000 in bonds to start the process of expanding Capitol Park, adding two new buildings for state offices and enhancing world-class aesthetics to the grounds, partly in the form of the Capitol Fountain.

For decades its swirling waterworks danced in front of the neoclassical state citadel. But in recent years, officials have neglected the fountain’s upkeep and delayed repairs.

Between 2014 and 2017, the Department of General Services made various public comments suggesting the fountain would, at some point, be restored. So when the department released the environmental impact report for its new restoration of the Jesse M. Unruh Building in late July, members of Preservation Sacramento were shocked to see that the project proposed removing the fountain entirely.

The EIR states the fountain “has been nonoperational since 2010 and is deteriorating.” It adds, “There are issues with electrical shortages in the fountain’s lighting, failure of mechanical equipment, leaks in the fountain bowl and associated valves, and possible drain collapse.”

Luree Steston of Preservation Sacramento notes that the EIR makes no mention of why those issues can’t be repaired as part of the broader restoration slated for the grounds.

“They don’t justify why it has to be removed,” Steston said. While her organization only learned of the planned demolition a week before the Aug. 30 deadline for public comment, it was able to get more than 100 protests submitted.

“Right now, we’re trying to get the word out with the public and hoping our legislators will save it,” Steston said.

One lawmaker who’s already taken notice is Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento. On Oct. 1, McCarty wrote a letter to Department of General Services Director Daniel Kim asking that the process to remove the fountain be halted. Among McCarty’s reasons were a number of apparent inconsistencies within the EIR.

“I share the concerns expressed by numerous constituents and would like to understand DGS’s rationale for proposing demolition of the fountain,” McCarty wrote. He also questioned whether the fountain was in as bad shape as the EIR implies. “These issues appear to be minimal and easily corrected,” he noted.

But the Department of General Services says that’s not the case. Its public information officer Jennifer Lida told SN&R that, while the fountain’s demolition is still being reviewed, her department has found it to be basically irreparable.

“The Department of General Services worked with multiple qualified vendors that reached the same conclusion,” Lida wrote via email.

Still, Milford Wayne Donaldson, chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and a 45-year restoration architect, doesn’t think that the Capitol Fountain is a lost cause. In 2011, Donaldson was called upon to restore San Diego’s Horton Park Plaza Fountain, which dates to 1909 and was the first electric fountain west of the Mississippi. Before Donaldson pulled off that rehab, public officials had been sparring over whether the fountain was fixable. Some thought it needed to make way for progress.

“We had a very similar situation back then, and that fountain had become a symbol for the citizens of San Diego,” Donaldson recalled. “They wanted to demolish it. … But when we flipped the switch to bring it back to life, we had four or five thousand people standing there, cheering.”

Donaldson believes Sacramento could have a similar moment if state officials put the brakes on their plans.

“There is no reason why the Capitol Fountain can’t be restored, they just need the right expert,” Donaldson said. “I hope GSA does the right thing. … Political leadership is key to all of this. Preservation is politics.”