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By Jay Thorwaldson

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.