Lotta’s Fountain: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

On September 9, 1875, Mayor Otis unveiled a new public fountain at the intersection of Market and Kearny Streets. The cast-iron monument with Gold Rush scenes, sailing ships, and lion head decorating its sides was a gift from entertainer Lotta Crabtree. San Francisco had embraced and celebrated her as prodigious child talent. Now she was the highest paid actress in the nation, the belle of Broadway, and she wanted to show she remembered and appreciated the city that made her a star.

At the unveiling ceremony, held on the 25th anniversary of California’s admission to the United States, a reporter archly noted that the crowd “consisted largely of idle hoodlums, to whom it was apparent that water would be a precious boon…” Lotta’s aunt, no doubt excluded from the reporter’s label of hoodlumhood, took the first draught from the fountain.

Lotta's Fountain, circa 1880.
View up Geary from Market. Idlers enjoying a drink, circa 1880. (wnp24.0033a, stereocard view, courtesy of a private collector.)

One of the speakers at the ceremony predicted, “the solid iron fabric must last and survive the ruins of centuries and the name of the kind-hearted little actress will long be upon the lips of those who will in the far distant future experience the benefit of her thoughtful deed.”

The provision of clean, accessible drinking water in a teeming dirty city was rightfully considered a generous public benefit in the nineteenth century. (The ongoing contamination of water in Flint, Michigan serves as a reminder of what we take for granted.)

View north up Kearny, 1914.
View north up Kearny in 1914. The fountain had been modified with extra light fixtures. (wnp36.00683, Department of Public Works, DPW book 10, image 2188, copy negative courtesy of a private collector.)

But while Lotta’s name lives on, water from the lion’s mouths has not proven the reason the fountain holds such a place of reverence for San Franciscans. For 142 years the fountain has been a meeting place, a beacon, a lighthouse set amidst tides of human traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Dedication of Tetrazzini bronze on fountain, March 24, 1912.
Soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, who had sung in a Christmas ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain in 1910, was honored with a commemorative plaque affixed to the fountain on March 24, 1912. (wnp37.01984, R. J. Waters postcard image, courtesy of a private collector.)

In 1916, as the city expanded its installation of grand “Path of Gold” light standards along Market Street, the shabby state of Lotta’s Fountain became a theme of letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. A new streetcar pole obscured it. Grimy newspaper boys congregated too close. The whole thing needed a paint job.

In January 1917, artist and park commissioner M. Earl Cummings submitted a plan to the Board of Public Works to add a tall shaft and extend the monument to the height of the new light standards. By mid-1917 it was done and now letter-writers complained it was a desecration and Lotta Crabtree must be insulted. (Crabtree, living on the East Coast, apparently gave her approval for the modification.)

View down Market Street from Geary, circa 1920.
View down Market Street from Geary, circa 1920, showing Lotta’s Fountain with its new height. (wnp30.0307, Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection.)

View up Geary from Market, February 1980.
View up Geary from Market, February 1980. (wnp25.1922, 35mm slide, courtesy of a private collector.)

The super-sized version lasted until 1998, when a windstorm damaged the shaft. A restoration effort brought the landmark back to its original height. The fountain supposedly is once again able to run, although I can’t say I have ever seen a drop of water come out of it in my lifetime.