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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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The great water war of California Avenue?

Uploaded: May 30, 2008
One of the odder mini-battles of Palo Alto is occurring at the east end of the California Avenue business district, near the Caltrain station.

That is whether to save a middling-old fountain or replace it with a blockish sculpture by famous sculptor Bruce Beasley. The sculpture would be dry unless some funds materialize to redo the plumbing so it can be a fountain -- as Beasley originally conceived it to be.

For years I have followed the fate of the old fountain, believed to have been installed in the 1970s -- I thought it was a bit older -- because of the proclivity of local kids (one presumes) to dump soap, sometimes laced with food coloring, into the fountain to create a huge pile of suds.

"If you get rid of the fountain, where can local kids then go for some good clean fun?" I asked Ronna Devincenzi, who heads up the California Avenue Area Development Association, a kind of local Chamber of Commerce for the area. The association board went on record officially last week favoring *either* a new sculpture or (preferably) a new fountain if funds can be found for re-doing the old plumbing system, for which cost estimates are being updated.

Ronna explained that the old fountain is cracked and has had to be supported by steel pipes to keep it from falling over. Seems it has been bumped into a few times by vehicles, possibly including local delivery trucks trying to negotiate a tight turning circle around it. People for some reason seem reluctant to report a solo-vehicle collision with a large fountain. Perhaps some were customers of a local nightspot or other who had other reasons for not reporting whacking a local monument.

Longtime Palo Altan Ellen Wyman, with a history of community activism on various issues, usually relating to slowing growth, likes the old fountain and circulated a petition to save it, getting 2 to 1 support from the three-score or so people she contacted.

Well, I like the old fountain, too. I like its "Classic Birdbath" design. Even the support bars are pretty much hidden by the falling water. Pretty much.

But it is hardly historic, unless us short-memory Californians are shortening our definition of that often-vague term.

And Beasley has a worldwide reputation for his sculptural works. This isn't another large running doll with a face in her stomach.

Yet without water, it also seems a bit blockish and barren -- the image, with local buildings removed from the background, makes it look a bit like a surreal scene out of a sci-fi movie. I can't imagine going to it on a sunny, or hot, day to sit on a hot block of stone to look at a 12-foot high pile of equally hot blocks.

Yet if water were flowing out of them in some creative fashion. ... Well, water has a kind of magic, a softening, cooling, inviting sense and its flow can be both soothing and entertaining -- as well as turbulent and exciting in a different design. A fountain is something to look at, to feel, to appreciate -- in short, to visit.

Without water, how long would it be before kids swarm all over it, climbing it, falling off of it? The sculptor believes it's not climbable. I wouldn't touch a bet on that with a 30-foot rope. Has he seen some of our youthful rock climbers in action? Liability? I suppose we could put handholds on it and make it an official climbing block.

But a pile of wet, slimey, blocks would discourage the climbers -- even if it wouldn't touch the midnight sudsers.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on May 30, 2008 at 4:54 pm

I tend to agree with you Jay. The old fountain is an old fountain, but the blocks's sculpture is ugly. Maybe if water could be included in the design, it might work. Otherwise, it is just as you say, plus another obstacle for drivers. Question, will they be lit up or will drivers have to depend on their own headlights to spot them at dusk or nighttime?

Posted by k, a resident of ,
on May 30, 2008 at 9:18 pm

We were watching TV yesterday (Catching up on European soccer news)and a new sculpture was unveiled at the big football (soccer) stadium in London, and guess what! It was a wonderful sculpture featuring three famous British soccer players from history. So - this is "sports art." I immediately noticed how much BETTER this sculpture was compared to the awful public art on California Ave. in Palo Alto. And that includes the proposed new blocklike scupture. Keep the fountain or else get something decent in there. It isn't rocket science. And thank you, Ellen Wyman for your community service.

Posted by It's I, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 12:24 am

My family moved to the area in 1961. The fountain has been there since the early '60s, 1961 or 1962 at least. It is a neighborhood institution, soap suds and all (the suds aren't vandalism, they make the fountain more festive!). There are lights in the fountain itself which probably fell into disrepair years ago. Proper traffic lights and signs are needed to hopefully divert tipsy drivers around it. It's sad to see the old thing propped up with crutches now.

Tearing down everything old in Palo Alto is not necessarily a good thing. You wouldn't tear down the community theaters or St. Thomas Aquinas, would you? Palo Altans can either rehabilitate the existing fountain (or build a new one like it) or they can build a monument to the enclave for effete silicon- and real estate-wealthy yuppie millionaires that Palo Alto has become. Or remove the fountain altogether, creating an empty void where a landmark used to be. Take your pick.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 12:46 am

Nora Charles is a registered user.

I vote for keeping the fountain, or installing a new fountain. Water is calming, pleasant to look at, and nice to listen to. Alas, one cannot say the same of the dreadful Go Momma. Why can't the fountain simply be fixed? I realize this is Palo Alto and that is easier said than done. But Europe has had fountains for hundreds (thousands?) of years, happy streaming away seemingly without problem. Surely great minds in this area can figure this out.

But please, no more public "art."

Posted by Mike, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 1:50 am

First, thanks to Ellen Wyman's activism, and her willingness to walk the walk and deliver the results showing that our citizens want the fountain to *remain*, as do I.

Second, nobody really knows why the fountain is in need of support. There seems to be an urban myth out there about how cars have bumped into it. When did this happen? If it *did happen*, why hasn't our city simply put up a few small concrete "car posts". Any car heading toward the fountain - and people sitting nearby - would hit a post. Simple,, cheap solution.

Third, I don't care if Alberto Giacometti himself designed the proposed new sculpture. If it doesn't include water, I'd rather see a small circle of daisies there. Mr. Beasley is a good artist, and knows his way around the public art scene. That doesn't make his proposal something we should be giving fawning support to.

Fourth, City Council should be able to find a way to add $50K or so to make Mr. Beasley's sculpture one that emits water. So that the sound, light, and other kinetic effects of water are experienced by onlookers. California Ave. is a gateway; it deserves something more than a stone monolith at one of its gateways.

Fifth, Water IS a part of a long-standing *tradition* on that spot.

Sixth, I like Jay's idea of something other than an stone needle. Mr. Beasley has many more exciting ideas. I'm sure he's up to it.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 7:54 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Actually, I don't have a problem with the block sculpture design, just with the idea of it being a dry, barren sculpture. It looks as if it should have a large melting pocket watch oozing off one of its ledges in homage to Salvador Dali. -jay

Posted by Mary G, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 8:15 am

Let's talk about public art in general. Is it worth the cost in a time when we can't fix the potholes? Most of the recent public "art" is ludicrously bad. What does it cost the city to continue this program? What else could we buy with the money?

Posted by Midtown Guy, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 9:49 am

We already have heard protests about the austere cold fountain and the
whacko art that already makes California Avenue funky. Yet DeVincenzi insists on combining the sculpture with the fountain, even though many merchants on California Avenue have spoken of the hodge-podge character of "art" already selected for the avenue. Who needs a modernist, edgy sculpture, when simply fixing the fountain will please kids, dogs. pedestrian strollers who like water sounds, birds, people who like refracted light, those who appreciate the dynamic changes of water surfaces, and so on. Why does something so simple have to be wrought with such complexity? If it's controversial it must be "ART"???

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 9:57 am

Mary has a great point.

I have nothing against public art if it is appropriate and pleasing. However, money spent on public art should be spent only if the public feel that they are getting their money's worth. I have nothing against a small amount in the City budget being allocated to art each year and if it is not spent this year, then it can be put into reserve until such time as it can be allocated. But, I am not sure that this is what happens in PA. We have many everyday needs eg potholes, and bigger needs eg libraries and police hq, which are higher up the list of where our money should be going. Granted, if a truck backed into the fountain and caused an immediate problem which had to be fixed, the money would have to be spent. Otherwise, the general repair fund should be able to repair and maintain the fountain. I like the idea of concrete pillars protecting the fountain from absent minded drivers, but spending all this money on "art" when we have other pressing needs is truly questionable.

Posted by It's I, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 12:19 pm

I seriously doubt a vehicle has ever struck the fountain. There would likely have been serious damage to the "bowl" which is now propped up with crutches. I think the thing is simply getting old and wobbly.

Posted by R Wray, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 12:56 pm

I have everything against public art. It means some bureaucrat is spending my money on art works that I undoubtedly won't like.

Posted by Keep the fountain, a resident of ,
on May 31, 2008 at 7:42 pm

European fountains with sculptures in them last for centuries. Ours can't last 50 years?
Why was it so incompetently built and worse yet, not protected from damage?
A structure that is 50 years old is called decrepit whether it is a school or a library or a plaza or a fountain. Really, what is wrong with this town?

Posted by Council Watcher, a resident of ,
on Jun 1, 2008 at 8:21 am

This is America where no one likes to keep old things because the prevailing philosophy is everything new must be better. The fountains in Trafalgar Square in London are centuries old; the Trevi fountain in Rome is even older.

Unfortunately, our Art's Commission has a huge budget, so they love to waste money on ugly things for California Avenue. I'm for putting the Art's Commission on a severe diet or even a moratorium "no more unnecessary sculptures or exterior art work for five years". Then donating their budget to our decaying infrastructure. Well, that's what I'd do if I was on the City Council.

Posted by long-time resident, a resident of ,
on Jun 2, 2008 at 8:28 am

Council Watcher and Keep the fountain,
Good observations. Why is it that we build homes in this country with 1000 year old tree lumber, in such a shoddy way that they have little more than 50-100 years life in them? I stayed in a friend's home overseas that had a foundation dating to Roman times, and a main structure that was about 600 years old. (Beautiful, but so worth preserving, even the old door frames had to be kept intact, as originally built for the much shorter people of the era...)

I am a lot more concerned about why it is we do not invest the money in updating California Avenue the way Castro Street was renovated in Mtn Vw. Am I the only one who remembers what a huge boon to business and livability that was? Who cares about a sculpture when the street is cracking, is unfriendly and too wide in the same way Castro used to be.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of ,
on Jun 2, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Last Saturday there were ducks wandering up and down California Avenue. Since the city isn't going to fix potholes, how about turning the fountain into another duct pond (hole). Same basic idea but less plumbing than a fountain and a little landscaping. The ducks and turtles are very entertaining to little kids and maybe not as entertaining to the soap suds crowd.

Posted by Lois, a resident of ,
on Aug 6, 2008 at 12:37 pm

If they can build a brand new fountain in Lytton Plaza, Downtown, they can repair and upgrade the fountain at the East end of California Avenue.

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