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A snaking and cube-like fountain made up of concrete. It looks rough and undone, and gushes water into a pool.
Vallaincourt Fountain in Embarcadero Plaza.
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San Francisco’s most glorious fountains

From a fountain of turtles to a misting dandelion, these gushers will have you gushing

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Vallaincourt Fountain in Embarcadero Plaza.
| Shutterstock

From Ruth Asawa’s crafty fountain outside the Union Square Apple Store to one of the most polarizing pieces of art in the Bay Area, there are many fine aquatic gushers to take note of in San Francisco.

It’s worth remembering that San Francisco seems to have a distinctly love/hate relationship with fountains as a medium in general. In fact, some of the city’s most glamorous geysers have met with mixed reactions in their time. Opponents of the Vaillancourt Fountain handed out leaflets at the dedication ceremony, describing it as a “loathsome monstrosity,” a “howling obscenity,” and “pestiferous eyesore.” (Tough crowd.)

Others may have been well received but fell into neglect and run dry. While others are just overlooked entirely. But rain or shine, these sculptures leave a watermark on our fair city. Here are a few of our favorites.

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Rideout Fountain

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Opinion vary on the meaning of the feline figure wrestling a snake at the center of the Rideout Fountain in the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse, but close inspection of its dental work suggests that it’s a saber-toothed tiger, thus qualifying this one of the most metal images ever cast in stone. Banker’s widow Corrine Rideout used 10 percent of her late husband’s $100,000 estate paying for the piece in 1924, the equivalent of more than $141,000 today.

The fountain provides a serene spot in Golden Gate Park, an excellent reprieve from the myriad of sights at nearby deYoung Museum and California Academy of Arts.

Yoda Fountain

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Conveniently, the Jedi Master enshrined outside of the Presidio’s Letterman Digital Arts Center since 2005 demanded very little material to sculpt at life size. According to Atlas Obscura, “At only just over two feet tall, the statue is essentially life-size, and is sculpted to look like the aged version of the wise little gremlin as he appeared in the original Star Wars trilogy, as opposed to the smoother young Jedi CGI’d into the prequel trilogy.”

Palace Of Fine Arts

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Sometimes it pays not to overthink. The jet of water springing from the lagoon around Bernard Maybeck’s irreplaceable San Francisco legacy is about as minimalist as it gets, an elegant accent outside of an essentially perfect building. Chances are if it weren’t there nobody would think to ask why such a feature never made it into the scene. But the entire thing would be poorer for the absence, even if nobody ever knew it.

Photo by Dan Henson

The Wave Organ

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It takes a little imagination to dub the Wave Organ a fountain, but then, it takes a little imagination to classify this entirely singular collaboration of human art and nature in any way at all. Conceived in 1986 by Exploratorium artist Peter Richards, the sounds the Wave Organ generates as the tides flow through its 25 pipe are less obviously musical than just slightly surreal, but you’ve got to love Richards’ ambition.

Origami Fountains

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Another Ruth Asawa commission illustrates the point (or perhaps many multi-folded points) about the necessity of water as dramatically as possible in Japantown. When turned off, Asawa’s origami-style blossoms appear perfectly pleasant yet somewhat nondescript. But catch them on the rare occasion when water flows and the transformation is nothing short of delightful, with each sculpted angle taking on a life of its own.

Andrea’s Fountain

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This 1968 Asawa creation enraged noted San Francisco designer Lawrence Halprin, the man behind Ghirardelli Square, Justin Herman Plaza, and Stern Grove. A salty Halprin said 50 years ago that Asawa’s mermaids (modeled on her neighbor Andrea Jepson, hence the piece’s name) and sea turtles were spoiling his vision with their “Victorian overtones.” How dare they.

To be fair, the mermaids (complete with swaddled mermaid baby) are a bit twee. But Halprin’s example shows us that sometimes it pays not to take yourself too seriously and just love something on its own terms.

The Fountain of the Turtles

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A replica of the Fontana della Tartarughe circa 1583 in Rome (one of six in the world), originally brought to California to decorate the Hillsborough home of the Crocker banking family and gifted to the city in 1954. Incidentally, Grace Cathedral across the street sits on land the Crockers used to own as well.

Look closely at the photos and you can see that, for reasons the rest of us can only speculate about, some local scofflaw keeps stealing the turtles off this fountain, and after at least two heists since 2007 must have quite a collection by now.

Dancing Sprites at Huntington Park

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Donated by Mrs. James Flood in 1942, the Dancing Sprites fountain was created by French sculptor Henri Léon Greber. Cast in bronze it features three naked kids holding hands and dancing in a circle around a stream of water. It’s one of two fountains inside the pristine Nob Hill Park.

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Ruth Asawa Fountain

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The 41 bronze panels of Asawa’s seven foot tall circa 1972 piece all depict other San Francisco landmarks and neighborhoods,. Asawa recruited 100 local school kids to help her sculpt the original model.

It’s actually not that remarkable compared to, say, her Aurora piece on the Embarcadero, but it makes the list by virtue of sheer public sentiment.

When Apple made the mistake of releasing renderings of its nearby store that didn’t include any reference to it, fans all but ran them out of town on a rail until the tech giant (perhaps bashfully) updated their designs the following year.

Lotta’s Fountain

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Chances are many passersby don’t realize this one even is a fountain, as it seems water hasn’t filled its basins in years. Gold Rush-era singer Lotta Crabtree commissioned the cast iron addition at Market and Kearny. Critics consider it quite an eyesore—in 1947, writer Samuel Dickson called it “not only an unaesthetic monstrosity but the ugliest monument in the city.” But in truth there’s something naively charming about its baroque exertions.

These days it’s most famous for serving as the rallying point for survivors of the 1906 earthquake, and the site of Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve recital four years later.

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Redwood Park

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Anthony Guzzardo’s frog-bedecked fountain in the shadow of Redwood Park—which itself sits in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid—is perhaps the single singular San Francisco font that best complements it surroundings.

Much the same way the half-acre park full of transplanted redwoods seems to burst right out of the heart of the financial district like some sudden and shocking return to nature, Guzzardo’s upwelling seems to burst unbidden straight out of the ground.

Martin Luther King Memorial Fountain

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A 50-foot by twenty-foot foot wall of water highlights the country’s second-largest MLK memorial. A collaboration between sculptor Houston Conwill, poet Estella Conwill Majoza, and architect Joseph DePace, a reflecting pool can be found at top.

Levi's Plaza

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Now here’s a fountain Lawrence Halprin did approve of. In fact, he picked out the “hulking piece of carnelian granite” (as the Cultural Landscape Foundation calls it) himself, from the very same quarry that supplied the material for the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, another Halprin design.

Dandelion Fountain

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Sometimes called the peacock fountain, this design by Australian architect Bob Woodward has the twin distinctions of being one of the city’s most creative and sophisticated water-based works and of appearing completely and totally useless when turned off.

All fountains are meant to be appreciated whilst running, of course, but in this case there really is no there there without the agua.

Vaillancourt Fountain

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If there’s really no such thing as bad publicity, then Armand Vaillancourt and his twisted tableau on the Embarcadero will be sitting pretty for another 45-plus years to come. The Quebecois artist created the love-it/hate-it snaking and cubed fountain in 1971, constructed out of precast concrete square tubes. May it flow forever untouched.

Lawrence Halprin, who designed Embarcadero Plaza, previously known as Justin Herman Plaza from its opening in 1972 until 2017, and hired Vaillancourt to design the fountain, was quoted as saying that if the fountain wasn’t among the “great works of civic art...I am going to slit my throat.”

Of special note, U2 once played a free concert here while atop the fountain in 1987.

Mission Plaza

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This concrete setup, which features six individual fountains, is a hidden gem, sandwiched between two buildings on Main and Spear. It’s also out of the sun, so it’s makes an idea spot for cooling down. The nearby tables also make this a choice spot during lunchtime.

Photo by Brock Keeling

Ruth Asawa’s has several work in the city, including this underrated stainless steel fountain that perfectly frames the Bay Bridge. Built in 1986, water falls from the top of the wheel-shaped, origami-inspired sculpture and around its perimeter before splashing into a tiled pool.

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Rideout Fountain

Opinion vary on the meaning of the feline figure wrestling a snake at the center of the Rideout Fountain in the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse, but close inspection of its dental work suggests that it’s a saber-toothed tiger, thus qualifying this one of the most metal images ever cast in stone. Banker’s widow Corrine Rideout used 10 percent of her late husband’s $100,000 estate paying for the piece in 1924, the equivalent of more than $141,000 today.

The fountain provides a serene spot in Golden Gate Park, an excellent reprieve from the myriad of sights at nearby deYoung Museum and California Academy of Arts.

Yoda Fountain

Conveniently, the Jedi Master enshrined outside of the Presidio’s Letterman Digital Arts Center since 2005 demanded very little material to sculpt at life size. According to Atlas Obscura, “At only just over two feet tall, the statue is essentially life-size, and is sculpted to look like the aged version of the wise little gremlin as he appeared in the original Star Wars trilogy, as opposed to the smoother young Jedi CGI’d into the prequel trilogy.”

Palace Of Fine Arts

Photo by Dan Henson

Sometimes it pays not to overthink. The jet of water springing from the lagoon around Bernard Maybeck’s irreplaceable San Francisco legacy is about as minimalist as it gets, an elegant accent outside of an essentially perfect building. Chances are if it weren’t there nobody would think to ask why such a feature never made it into the scene. But the entire thing would be poorer for the absence, even if nobody ever knew it.

Photo by Dan Henson

The Wave Organ

It takes a little imagination to dub the Wave Organ a fountain, but then, it takes a little imagination to classify this entirely singular collaboration of human art and nature in any way at all. Conceived in 1986 by Exploratorium artist Peter Richards, the sounds the Wave Organ generates as the tides flow through its 25 pipe are less obviously musical than just slightly surreal, but you’ve got to love Richards’ ambition.

Origami Fountains

Another Ruth Asawa commission illustrates the point (or perhaps many multi-folded points) about the necessity of water as dramatically as possible in Japantown. When turned off, Asawa’s origami-style blossoms appear perfectly pleasant yet somewhat nondescript. But catch them on the rare occasion when water flows and the transformation is nothing short of delightful, with each sculpted angle taking on a life of its own.

Andrea’s Fountain

This 1968 Asawa creation enraged noted San Francisco designer Lawrence Halprin, the man behind Ghirardelli Square, Justin Herman Plaza, and Stern Grove. A salty Halprin said 50 years ago that Asawa’s mermaids (modeled on her neighbor Andrea Jepson, hence the piece’s name) and sea turtles were spoiling his vision with their “Victorian overtones.” How dare they.

To be fair, the mermaids (complete with swaddled mermaid baby) are a bit twee. But Halprin’s example shows us that sometimes it pays not to take yourself too seriously and just love something on its own terms.

The Fountain of the Turtles

A replica of the Fontana della Tartarughe circa 1583 in Rome (one of six in the world), originally brought to California to decorate the Hillsborough home of the Crocker banking family and gifted to the city in 1954. Incidentally, Grace Cathedral across the street sits on land the Crockers used to own as well.

Look closely at the photos and you can see that, for reasons the rest of us can only speculate about, some local scofflaw keeps stealing the turtles off this fountain, and after at least two heists since 2007 must have quite a collection by now.

Dancing Sprites at Huntington Park

Donated by Mrs. James Flood in 1942, the Dancing Sprites fountain was created by French sculptor Henri Léon Greber. Cast in bronze it features three naked kids holding hands and dancing in a circle around a stream of water. It’s one of two fountains inside the pristine Nob Hill Park.

A post shared by M.C. Welsh (@m.c.welsh) on

Ruth Asawa Fountain

The 41 bronze panels of Asawa’s seven foot tall circa 1972 piece all depict other San Francisco landmarks and neighborhoods,. Asawa recruited 100 local school kids to help her sculpt the original model.

It’s actually not that remarkable compared to, say, her Aurora piece on the Embarcadero, but it makes the list by virtue of sheer public sentiment.

When Apple made the mistake of releasing renderings of its nearby store that didn’t include any reference to it, fans all but ran them out of town on a rail until the tech giant (perhaps bashfully) updated their designs the following year.

Lotta’s Fountain

Centpaccr

Chances are many passersby don’t realize this one even is a fountain, as it seems water hasn’t filled its basins in years. Gold Rush-era singer Lotta Crabtree commissioned the cast iron addition at Market and Kearny. Critics consider it quite an eyesore—in 1947, writer Samuel Dickson called it “not only an unaesthetic monstrosity but the ugliest monument in the city.” But in truth there’s something naively charming about its baroque exertions.

These days it’s most famous for serving as the rallying point for survivors of the 1906 earthquake, and the site of Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve recital four years later.

Centpaccr

Redwood Park

Anthony Guzzardo’s frog-bedecked fountain in the shadow of Redwood Park—which itself sits in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid—is perhaps the single singular San Francisco font that best complements it surroundings.

Much the same way the half-acre park full of transplanted redwoods seems to burst right out of the heart of the financial district like some sudden and shocking return to nature, Guzzardo’s upwelling seems to burst unbidden straight out of the ground.

Martin Luther King Memorial Fountain

A 50-foot by twenty-foot foot wall of water highlights the country’s second-largest MLK memorial. A collaboration between sculptor Houston Conwill, poet Estella Conwill Majoza, and architect Joseph DePace, a reflecting pool can be found at top.

Levi's Plaza

Now here’s a fountain Lawrence Halprin did approve of. In fact, he picked out the “hulking piece of carnelian granite” (as the Cultural Landscape Foundation calls it) himself, from the very same quarry that supplied the material for the FDR Memorial in Washington DC, another Halprin design.

Dandelion Fountain

Sometimes called the peacock fountain, this design by Australian architect Bob Woodward has the twin distinctions of being one of the city’s most creative and sophisticated water-based works and of appearing completely and totally useless when turned off.

All fountains are meant to be appreciated whilst running, of course, but in this case there really is no there there without the agua.

Vaillancourt Fountain

If there’s really no such thing as bad publicity, then Armand Vaillancourt and his twisted tableau on the Embarcadero will be sitting pretty for another 45-plus years to come. The Quebecois artist created the love-it/hate-it snaking and cubed fountain in 1971, constructed out of precast concrete square tubes. May it flow forever untouched.

Lawrence Halprin, who designed Embarcadero Plaza, previously known as Justin Herman Plaza from its opening in 1972 until 2017, and hired Vaillancourt to design the fountain, was quoted as saying that if the fountain wasn’t among the “great works of civic art...I am going to slit my throat.”

Of special note, U2 once played a free concert here while atop the fountain in 1987.

Mission Plaza

Photo by Brock Keeling

This concrete setup, which features six individual fountains, is a hidden gem, sandwiched between two buildings on Main and Spear. It’s also out of the sun, so it’s makes an idea spot for cooling down. The nearby tables also make this a choice spot during lunchtime.

Photo by Brock Keeling

Aurora

Ruth Asawa’s has several work in the city, including this underrated stainless steel fountain that perfectly frames the Bay Bridge. Built in 1986, water falls from the top of the wheel-shaped, origami-inspired sculpture and around its perimeter before splashing into a tiled pool.