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Why the homeliest landmark on Market Street deserves your attention.

By J. Kingston Pierce



"Lotta's what?" retorts the woman from the city's Department of Public Works, distinctly impatient with my questions, sounding convinced that she can't answer them even before she tries. "You say it was commissioned by Lotta who?"

Lotta Crabtree, I explain again--"The California Diamond." She was a vivacious, red-headed comedienne of the 19th century, a protégée of stage rage Lola Montez's, who charmed embryonic San Francisco with her songs and her dancing and her infectious laugh. She went on to enchant the rest of the nation and the world with her bounteous talents, but never forgot this place that had helped make her a child star right after the Gold Rush, this town that had first loved her. And so in 1875, when Crabtree was famous and wealthy, she had a fancy cast-iron, lions-headed drinking fountain made in Philadelphia and shipped all the way out to the Bay Area as a token of her gratitude. That tall, spindly, some might even say "homely" pillar still rises from a cement delta at the convergence of Market, Geary, and Kearny streets, diagonally across from the Palace Hotel. But it's been dry for years now.

All I want to know from Public Works is whether water pipes run anymore out to Lotta's Fountain, pipes that might someday again bring refreshment to the frenzied hordes of San Francisco's Financial District. But none of the people in that office seem able to help me. Nor can they recommend another city bureau with better information. The more I dig for leads, the more frustrated they become, until finally the woman who's been trying to guide me through the bureaucratic morass throws up her hands and insists that nobody in town--probably nobody on the entire planet!--is actually responsible for the monument in question.

"Are you sure this fountain of yours exists any longer?" she says, eyeing me suddenly as a troublemaker. "I don't think I've ever even seen it."

If so, she's certainly not alone.

Every day tens of thousands of workers and probably thousands more tourists scurry by the actress' commemorative column without giving it a moment's recognition. Since the thing no longer serves a purpose other than as street sculpture--and it's dirty, graffiti-marred, newspaper-strewn street sculpture at that--most folks treat it as nothing more than an impediment to their travel. Only on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, every April 18th, when the last San Franciscans who lived through that quake gather about this inanimate survivor of the same disaster, does Crabtree's gift receive much respect.

That's a shame. Because Lotta's Fountain is all that remains essentially intact from this crossroads' glory days, when the city's media elites concentrated their power here, and when people gathered at this broad juncture to celebrate their present. Or to renew their fragile faith in the future.

* * *

I lean on a lion's noggin and survey the streetscape from Lotta's Fountain. A MUNI bus roars west along Market, belching a miasma of pollutants, vying with cars and cabs and careening bicycle messengers for control of the lanes. A pair of teenagers, the skinny boy sporting camouflage wear, his girlfriend in a scarlet tubetop so snug that she must have to cut it off at night like a bandage, huddle on a dirty striped blanket nearby, sticking out their paws occasionally for spare change. "We took the bus in from Missoula," they mumble to passersby. "We have no place to stay." Absurdly, the folks most likely to help are those who appear least able to afford the gesture.

Two women in polished business armor, clutching full paper lunch sacks, bring traffic to a halt on Kearny as they use the crosswalk, their raven manes billowing in a rampant wind. I'm reminded of what locals called this intersection during the Gilded Age: "Cape Horn," named in dubious honor of the hazardous, blustery headland around which so many Forty-Niners sailed in search of California riches. "Here, on breezy afternoons," wrote Evelyn Wells in her spirited primer Champagne Days of San Francisco, "young men and old gathered to watch the girls trip past, clutching at many-gored skirts and flounced petticoats that would not stay down."

Even today, it's best to keep a firm grip on your hairpiece near Lotta's Fountain. But in our more permissive age, when Americans can scoop topless pics of Michelle Pfeiffer off the Internet and screen X-rated videos over Thanksgiving dinner, the most interesting attractions at this gusty corners may be historical and architectural rather than anatomical.

Almost everything was different here on September 9, 1875, as politicians and respectable citizens, along with more than an ample sampling of hellions from the Barbary Coast, assembled to dedicate San Francisco's new public drinking fountain. The very sky seemed larger then, if only because most of the surrounding edifices hadn't yet climbed beyond a few floors. The notable exception lay half a block to the east: the original Palace Hotel, which had opened mere weeks before and on this afternoon hung profusely with guests anxious to view the festivities. Two and a half acres in size, with 800 rooms and six of its seven gold-and-white stories decorated in parallel banks of bay windows, the Palace was this boomtown's pride and joy. But its inauguration had followed too closely the swimming death of its honored developer, William Ralston, and the temporary closing of Ralston's once-invincible Bank of California. Locals were desperately in need of a boost, and the unveiling of Lotta Crabtree's present promised them just that.

So whilst armed soldiers enforced order among the spectators, Mayor James Otis joined popular actor Harry Edwards beside this cast-iron landmark to laud the California Diamond for her achievements and generosity. Unfortunately, Crabtree herself was touring in the East and couldn't attend the ceremony, but her elderly aunt, a Mrs. Vernon, graciously sampled the font's first water before allowing the masses their fill. Apparently only the ruffians went away dissatisfied, grousing that there were no spigots labeled either WHISKEY or BEER.

Within another twenty years the neighborhood girding Lotta's Fountain had changed dramatically. The Palace now competed for attention with three other elaborate erections, each housing one of the city's premier newspapers. In their midst, Crabtree's gift appeared shrunken, a quaint relic from some pioneer era.

Perhaps the most significant of these new giants was the San Francisco Chronicle tower (690 Market Street), an 1890 work by Chicago master architects Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root. There was a time when strollers along Market could hear the Chron's presses rumbling in the basement of that skyscraper, while ten stories above, a clock (bearing what was supposedly the world's largest lighted face) ticked off the hours. A bulletin screen spanned the structure's lower facade, keeping locals apprised of breaking news. It was in front of that screen, on St. Patrick's Day of 1897, where San Franciscans crowded to read that local boy "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, for more than half a decade the world's boxing champ, had finally been laid flat in Nevada after 14 grueling rounds against New Zealander Bob Fitzsimmons. Until the earthquake nine years later, few events had more of an impact on more people in this burg than did the downing of that handsome, dark-haired Irishman.

Kitty-corner from the Chronicle stood the shorter, but nonetheless imposing headquarters of William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner (691-9 Market Street). And on the other side of Third Street (at 703 Market), choleric Sugar King Claus Spreckels had created a home for his San Francisco Call that was every inch an exclamation point on his long capitalistic career.

Designed in the late 1890s by James and Merritt Reid (who went on to create the Fairmont Hotel), the eighteen-story Spreckels Building was a confection of architectural genius and whimsy, with a classical entrance but a heavily embellished dome anchored by turrets. Spreckels was proud enough of this construction that he went to extraordinary and sometimes expensive lengths to protect it. In 1899, for instance, after spending two frustrating years complaining to the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company about how the coal smoke from its nearby plants was smudging his beautiful building, Spreckels decided to take revenge. He started a competing utility with the express purpose of driving SFG&E out of business. And he almost succeeded, before agreeing finally in 1903 to sell his independent power enterprise to SFG&E for a profit of more than $1.2 million--not bad recompense for his trouble.

* * *

But all of the Sugar King's money and temporal influence couldn't save the Spreckels Building on that devastating Wednesday in April, 1906, which marked the end of the beginning of local history.

The morning's two earthquake tremors pretty much spared the Cape Horn neighborhood. It's principal affect had been to frighten Palace Hotel tenants--among them Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, who was staying in the hotel during a scheduled week-long engagement at the Grand Opera House. After the second temblor, the temperamental Caruso was sure he stood on the brink of death. Worse, he feared that he'd lost his voice. His incredible voice! It wasn't until he stumbled to an open window and tried to sing--at the top of his lungs, at the top of his form--that Caruso was reassured.

One can only imagine what scared San Franciscans, resting at Lotta's Fountain in their desperate rush over rubble-strewn streets toward the waterfront and Bay-going ferries, thought when they heard the world's greatest living tenor bellowing lines from Carmen out a fifth-floor window of the Palace.

Not that they had long to ponder it, mind you, for fires that had been ignited by broken power lines and dry debris south of Market soon began licking north. They engulfed the Call building, sending temperatures inside as high as 2,000° F and blowing glass free of melting window frames. From there the inferno stormed Hearst's offices, melting type fonts and typewriters into a mephitic mass unrecognizable as the machinery of a free press.

Across the way, Chronicle publisher Michael Harry de Young had marshaled his reporting staff early and kept them on duty until the last possible minute, compiling stories for a special edition. He even persuaded his managing editor to pen an editorial putting the most optimistic spin on the mounting disaster. It never saw print. Neither did any of the Chronicle's other copy that day, for in the middle of production, fire damage severed the building's water supply, forcing its basement presses to shut down and its occupants finally to flee.

Until the afternoon, it looked as if the Palace--well armed with fire hoses and some 760,000 gallons of water stored in subterranean and rooftop tanks--would withstand the conflagration. But when the water ran out, it too succumbed. Around Cape Horn, only Crabtree's rococo monument, on which there was nothing to burn, came through the debacle virtually unscathed.

No wonder Lotta's Fountain became a rallying point for survivors of the Great Fire. And no wonder it was chosen in 1910 as the appropriate site for a Christmas Eve concert intended both to recapture the excitement of old San Francisco and reward locals for their diligent efforts in rebuilding the city. Singing would be Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, who had been a favorite of San Franciscans ever since her first visit in 1905 and was expected to draw a large crowd on December 31.

"Large" was an understatement. Approximately 250,000 people came to see Tetrazzini mount the open-air stage at Market and Kearny, dressed in a rose-pink cloak, a white ostrich boa and gown, and a big translucent hat. After a lengthy ovation, she began to sing, and suddenly every other sound, every other thought was irrelevant. Those who heard her that night, enthused the Chronicle, "now know something of the songs the angels sing." And when, in a voice that was more comfortable with Italian than English, she broke into a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," it seemed that every man, woman, and child in her audience lifted up their voice to meet hers. This city that had so recently climbed from its own ashes was remembering its past but gazing confidently toward its future. No other Christmas Eve ever seemed so magical.

* * *

As I stand now beside Lotta's Fountain, sucking exhaust fumes and watching a young office drone scamper after some papers he's lost to the wind, I try to envision this place as it was in 1910. But I can't. Nor can I imagine how it appeared in the summer of 1923, when President Warren G. Harding was dying in Suite 8064 at the Palace, and Mayor James Rolph ordered streetcars passing in the vicinity of Lotta's Fountain to quiet their bells in order that Harding could rest. And no amount of fantasizing gives me a sharp picture of the bizarre goings-on here during the Great Depression, when bankrupted millionaires stood beside this waterworks in three-piece suits to peddle apples for a living.

Too much has changed at this corners. The Chronicle building was restored after the Great Fire, but its Romanesque details were hidden in 1962 behind ugly white metal panels. Both the Chron and the Examiner long ago vacated the financial district. If you look closely at what's now called the Central Tower, at Third and Market, you might still discern the outlines of Claus Spreckels' beloved skyscraper, but a 1938 "modernizing" stripped it of its dome and most of its eccentric fenestration.

Even Crabtree's column hasn't been completely untouched by time. In 1916, it was raised eight feet to match the height of new street lamps along Market. Its horse-watering trough has been removed, and in 1974, during a $25,000 refurbishment, the whole thing was moved ten feet from where it once stood. It's a marvel that this landmark, abused and ill cared for as it seems to be, hasn't been banished from downtown. Not that some people haven't tried. In 1928, there was talk of relocating Lotta's Fountain to Golden Gate Park, but that campaign kicked up such a torrent of nostalgic protest that its supporters eventually backed down.

So Lotta Crabtree's gift to the city she loved remains. With luck, it will still be here a hundred years hence. Even if nobody notices it in all that time. Maybe especially then.

(Copyright 1996 by J. Kingston Pierce)


J. Kingston Pierce, a Seattle writer specializing in history, travel, and politics, is the author of San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) [amazon] and America’s Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997). He is currently at work on a collection of stories about significant events and eccentrics from Seattle’s past. "Lotta’s Legacy" appeared originally in the book Travelers’ Tales: San Francisco (Travelers’ Tales Inc., 1996).

Index - San Francisco History : Lotta Crabtree