California

Sacramento’s Capitol Mall fountain could be demolished as part of building project

A proposal by the California Department of General Services to remove the fountain at the center of Capitol Mall has distressed preservationists who say the fountain is an historic icon, Friday, August 30, 2019, in Sacramento. The fountain hasn’t had water in it since 2014 when Jerry Brown turned it off because of the drought.
A proposal by the California Department of General Services to remove the fountain at the center of Capitol Mall has distressed preservationists who say the fountain is an historic icon, Friday, August 30, 2019, in Sacramento. The fountain hasn’t had water in it since 2014 when Jerry Brown turned it off because of the drought. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

A proposal by the California Department of General Services to remove the fountain at the head of Capitol Mall has distressed preservationists, who say it is a historic icon that should remain.

As part of a 10-year plan to construct new state buildings and revamp old ones, the department plans to renovate the Jesse M. Unruh Building that houses the State’s Treasurer’s Office and, in the process, remove the fountain that lies directly south of the Unruh building.

The fountain, encircled by yellow rose bushes, has been turned off since 2010, and remained off when Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state to conserve water on the Capitol grounds in 2014.

A report published by the department in mid-July describing the proposed renovations cites “issues with electrical shortages in the fountain lighting, failure of mechanical equipment, leaks in the fountain bowl and associated valves, and a possible drain line collapse.”

Preservationists are upset.

Throughout the public comment period for the proposal, which lasted from mid-July to Friday, the department received 109 comments related specifically to the fountain, according to Monica Hassan, spokeswoman for the department.

Fans through the years have derided General Services how it operates (or doesn’t operate) the fountain. Over the last 40 years, the water feature has mostly gone dry in the name of conservation, even though it didn’t need to.

“The condition of Sacramento’s most prominent fountain is nothing short of a civic and state embarrassment,” wrote Sactown magazine editor Rob Turner in a 2014 letter to The Sacramento Bee shortly after Brown’s order. “(It’s) a dusty symbol that suggests that the politicians across the street can’t fix even the smallest problems.”

A spokesman of the agency admitted in a Jan. 28, 1977, Sacramento Bee article that turning off fountain doesn’t save water.

“Shutting off the Capitol fountain won’t save much water, conceded (DGS spokesman) Rob Van Der Volgen,” at the time, the article said, “because it was being recycled by pumps.”

At the time, General Service shut off the fountain as a “symbolic gesture to dramatize the need for water conservation,” the article by The Bee said.

“This is a visible symbol of our efforts to conserve water,” then-director of the agency, Leonard Grimes, told The Bee. The Associated Press wrote that the fountain consumes “the equivalent of approximately one toilet flush per day” of water – about 6 gallons in the late 1970s.

William Burg, president of Preservation Sacramento, said the fountain is “an iconic feature of Capitol Mall,” noting that the fountain is a component of the Capitol Annex National Register Historic District.

He recalled his past experiences looking at the Capitol from Tower Bridge: “You would see the Capitol in the distance, and these two buildings (the Unruh building and the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building) with the fountain in view,” he said. “It’s a distinct important feature to have this fountain as the centerpiece. It represents the state’s authority.”

The report published by the department notes that an alternative plan could be to renovate both the Unruh building and the fountain. Preservation Sacramento has suggested the possibility of leaving the fountain as is for now, which Burg said would save the state more money.

“Restoring the fountain costs money. Removing also costs money,” he said. “The fountain is there. They don’t need to restore it right now.”

The agency next will review the comments and make any revisions to the plan.

Were the department to go through with removing the fountain, it is considering several options to put in its place, including public art and landscaping, Hassan said.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.
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