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Fountain Valley

Is Capitol water feature down to its last drop?

By Gary Delsohn
March 2020

It’s been awhile since Sacramento’s design and architecture mavens had a big conflict with the state over a building project. But there is a passionate little battle taking place right now over the fate of the historic but dry fountain west of the Capitol.

This fight is nowhere near as pitched as the disagreement that festered between the city and state over the giant East End office complex near the Capitol in the early 2000s. That project achieved some important urban renewal objectives, clearing blight and consolidating scattered state offices and workers. But critics said the potential for a more eclectic and pedestrian-oriented streetscape was squandered.

The fountain fight is quaint by comparison. While the Capitol fountain has an interesting history dating to the 1920s, when it was built apparently in part to reinforce the idea that Sacramento was the state’s permanent capital, it’s been dormant since 2010. More recently, it was shut down for good by Gov. Jerry Brown in deference to California’s drought.

Although I’m not sure the fountain was ever the “beacon of civility and grandeur” one local design critic has called it, when the water was bubbling and the fountain was illuminated at night, it was a nice welcoming spot in the open space between the two Beaux-Arts-style state buildings on either side, next to the state Capitol.

The fountain and two buildings—the Jesse M. Unruh Building and the recently renovated Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building—are part of a federally registered historic district known as the Capitol Extension Group. The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, although the fountain does have passionate devotees.

Last July, after years of on-again, off-again conversations about repairing the fountain, the California Department of General Services issued a draft environmental impact report that seemed to seal the amenity’s fate.

The EIR was issued in connection with state plans to renovate and upgrade the 91-year-old Unruh Building as part of a 10-year building repair and construction initiative. The Unruh has a variety of fire, life safety, building code and other deficiencies that need repair. The renovation is projected to extend the life of the building by at least another 50 years, with construction expected to begin next winter and be completed by the end of 2023.

“The Capitol fountain was constructed in the 1920s, has been non-operational since 2010, and is deteriorating,” the draft EIR concluded. “There are 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.”

In other words, the fountain, which is not exactly an architectural masterpiece, was not worth saving, General Services concluded.

During the comment period after the EIR was issued, however, more than 100 people weighed in opposing its removal.

Their feelings were well represented in an October “Viewpoints” column in the Bee by Eleanor and Gregory VanAcker, members of Preservation Sacramento.

“The Capitol fountain,” they wrote, “is repairable and can be fully functioning with recirculated water, using less than one toilet flush of water per day. When functioning with active water sprays, it is a focal point for downtown workers, tourists and visitors to enjoy. The fountain ensures an appealing view of the state Capitol: its active water would draw tourists, and it frames the Capitol when taking photos.”

At least one state legislator, Democrat Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, seems to agree. McCarty has asked General Services to hold off on its plan to remove it. But as was the case with the far more impactful East End office project, the assemblymember and local preservationists may be fighting a losing battle.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at Follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:

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