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The Mulholland Memorial Fountain: A Grand Monument to a Man and Water

For the past ten years of my life, the Mulholland Memorial Fountain has been a watery blur. As a longtime resident of Los Feliz, I have passed by it hundreds of times, mostly in my car. Many of these times have found me singing to the radio, or talking on the phone, or yelling at the slow crawl of traffic that seems to never cease at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. In the past it has been the people surrounding the fountain that have really caught my attention. Trapped in gridlock at the intersection's interminable traffic lights, I might watch the joyful clusters of quinceanera and wedding parties that gather at the fountain every weekend to take pictures. Or at night, when the light of the fountain turns it slime green and candy apple red, I might peer at a couple kissing in the mist, as men play cards on a nearby bench.

Visiting the fountain on foot is a revelation. I go at mid-morning, and the parking lot is empty except for a couple of care-worn campers and beat up cars. Chain link fences encircle the newly landscaped park that surrounds the fountain. A circular slice of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct, now repurposed as site-specific sculpture, is still wrapped in protective wrap and sits among drought-tolerant, native Californian plants. I walk through the fence to the fountain itself, circled by white roses. Up close, the fountain is a wonder -- a 90 foot reflecting pool of brilliant turquoise tiles, filled with water so crystal clear that only the occasional rose petal interrupts the transparent view to the bottom. Water slickly falls over the art-deco tiers, and pours out of rectangular spouts reminiscent of a tall dam.

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The noise from the approximately 2,250 gallons of water that run through the fountain every minute blocks out the hubbub from the hellish intersection. Thanks to timers and mechanical tricks -- which this writer is not mentally equipped to understand -- the water constantly engages in an involved and graceful dance, at some points shooting up like a geyser, 50 feet in the air, and at other times creating intricate patterns like a child playing cats cradle with a piece of string. It is peaceful and hypnotic, and if you stand just right, you can see only the mountains of Griffith Park, towering cedars and pines, and the water shooting into the clean blue sky. You can ignore the smoggy, cracked concrete metropolis, which the man the fountain is named for made possible, and focus only on the brilliance of modern engineering and the beauty and abundance of our city's water supply -- which did not come without a price.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares


Beneficiaries of his Prophetic Vision

Bill Mulholland's work was known and appreciated by his generation. It is our task to perpetuate his memory for this and for future generations. They too are the beneficiaries of his engineering genius that gave this semi-tropic region ample water supplies. His career is an object lesson to every American boy and girl.
-- Joseph Scott, Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1940

Unlike most of our stories, this one starts not with a beginning but with an ending. William Mulholland, the "father of the Los Angeles water system," died in 1935 after half a century of service to the city. His greatest contribution had been as engineer of the 233-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913. The aqueduct cut across mountains and deep canyons, bringing water from the Owens River Valley in eastern California to Los Angeles through a series of tunnels, steel pipelines, reservoirs, and power plants. Mulholland oversaw the thousands of men engaged in its dangerous construction, relying mainly on plans and specifications that resided only in his head.

This "diversion" of a precious natural resource was not easily accomplished. Throughout the early 20th century, court battles with farmers in the suddenly parched Owens Valley raged. This spilled into open warfare during the water wars of the 1920s, when Owens Valley activists dynamited portions of the Aqueduct. The war culminated when a group of Owens Valley men took over a large diversion channel valve head, called the Alabama Gates, near the town of Independence. The men opened the floodgates, re-watering the now dry Owens Lake bed. Many Los Angeles officials, including Mulholland, were accused of shady dealings -- from using fear tactics to convince Angelenos of the aqueducts necessity, to buying up the soon to be valuable San Fernando Valley from unsuspecting ranchers. And then there was the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928 that killed 450+ people, and left Mulholland bowed with grief, the god pulled down to mere mortal in the eyes of many.

But as often happens with public figures, all these shades of grey were forgotten after his death. Angelenos quickly went to work putting Mulholland's memory back on a pedestal. A citizen committee, comprised of many of Mulholland's associates and friends, began raising private funds for a very public memorial. In 1937 a spot was chosen, at the southeasterly corner of the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. It was claimed that early in his career, when Mulholland was a simple "zanjero" whose job was to tend to the "zanja madre," as the city's main water ditch was known, he had lived in a shack on or nearby this site by the L.A. River. Here he was said to have studied his engineering books late into the night, with only a kerosene lamp to light his way, as the coyotes howled in the mountains nearby.


Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1939

With "good taste and good sense," the committee decided that an illuminated water fountain, which would "combine the ideas of water and power in an artistic way," was the perfect way to honor the "simple and unassuming" Mulholland.1 Contributions poured in, and donations were solicited from everyone, from the Mayor to school children. Even the children in Mulholland's granddaughter's class (much to her embarrassment) were asked for money. In total, an excess of $30,000 was raised. Walter S. Claberg, whose work for the DWP spanned decades, designed the fountain and construction began in March, 1940.

The dedication of the fountain, on the evening of August 1, 1940, was a jingoistic and unabashed celebration of civic pride. The 4,000 seats that had been set up for spectators were filled, and even more folks watched from the surrounding hills. The Los Angeles Police band played, and dignitaries speechified. Mulholland's nine year old granddaughter, Patricia, pressed the button that turned the fountain on, sending colored water shooting into the air in sprays, mists and streams.

Near the fountain was a large granite boulder melded with an inscribed bronze plaque. According to his deputy, H.A. Van Norman: "The chief and I were making an inspection trip to check on progress when he saw some large granite boulders cropping out from the hills above Haiwee reservoir. He commented upon their beauty, and said that some day they might be taken to Los Angeles to be used in a public building."2 So a boulder was taken from the spot, and upon the plaque these words were inscribed:

A penniless Irish immigrant boy, who rose by the force of his industry, intelligence, integrity and intrepidity to be a sturdy American citizen, a self-educated engineering genius, a whole-hearted humanitarian, the father of this city's water system and the builder of the LA aqueduct. This memorial is gratefully dedicated by those who are the recipients of his unselfish bounty and beneficiaries of his prophetic vision. 3

The whitewashing of William Mulholland and the L.A. water grab was now set in stone, and the metropolis went on its merry way.


The "Kool Aid" Fountain

There it blossoms; great cascades, columns, spires, towers, turrets, bursts of water- all blooming and shimmering in changing rainbow lights.
-- Miv Schaaf, Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1983
This is what you'd call a poor man's swimming pool.
-- James Burton, Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2002

Angelenos were so proud of their new fountain that in 1941 they honored it in a unique way. At the July Fourth celebration at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the memorial was duplicated with fireworks, "all the colors carefully reproduced." 4 The "Kool-Aid" colored fountain quickly became an Eastside Landmark, and family bike rides sponsored by the city often used it as their designated starting point. For a time the city even paid a person to watch the fountain full time, to make sure nothing happened to their precious monument.

In 1959, a bronze bas-relief portrait of Mulholland was placed by the fountain (where it remains today). The artist was the tiny, feisty 77-year-old Grace Banks Elridge of Beverly Glen. The daughter of a single mother who made her living painting portraits, Grace learned early, filling in the backgrounds on her mother's pieces. After bouncing around the country, she settled in Los Angeles and became a secretary. Eventually, she and her husband both went to chiropractic school and became well known in their field. They also planted a garden of prized irises. She was already in her seventies when she first made money as an artist. She had received $500 for her bas-relief of another DWP employee. In many ways, "Dr. Grace" represented everything spirited, artistic, inventive and progressive about the city that Mulholland's water had helped grow.

Someone throws soap chips in the fountain, 1955 | Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Digital Libraries

The spirit and ingenuity of Angelenos was also in evidence at the fountain, every especially hot SoCal day. Residents quickly made the fountain their unofficial wading pool. Children, adults, and dogs -- all swarmed in the cool waters in various stages of undress, as brushfires raged and the Santa Ana winds roared. So common has the practice been for decades, that whenever the temperature exceeds 90 degrees, it seems to be the L.A. Times' first instinct is to send a photographer to the fountain to see who is splashing around. Some people take their water play a bit more seriously. Eighteen year old Suzy Coyle, a "professional visualizer," danced in the fountain in 1988 as part of an artistic aquatic tour of fountains. 5 Her goal? Oh, just "to get rejuvenated and come out a whole new person."

It hasn't all been splish-splash fun and eccentric art. The 1970s were a particularly rough time for Los Angeles as a whole, and the fountain in particular. During the severe drought of 1973-74, it was turned off to conserve water. It was eventually turned back on, but the colored lights were not.

In 1976, the LADWP's plan to pump more water from the Owens Valley subterranean water table reignited the long simmering California Water Wars. On September 15, there was a dynamite explosion at the famed Alabama Gates. The next day, an arrow with a stick of dynamite strapped to it, was shot into the fountain. Police believed it had been shot from a heavy longbow, and was intended to detonate on impact. It did not. The culprit was never found, and though the violence again subsided, the court battles over Owens Valley's water raged on.

Photo by Tom LaBonge courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Pea-soup Green

What were you thinking when you published a photo of a woman swimming in the Mulholland Memorial Fountain at Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive ("Cooling-Off Period," April 7)? Having lived next to the fountain for five years, and having seen the pea soup- green water every Monday morning after a weekend of "public swimming," I can tell you that this behavior does not need to be publicized.

Signs prohibiting swimming are posted on the wall of the fountain in English and Spanish. What's furthergalling is that there's a public swimming pool right across the street. I think you've really done a disservice by publishing this photo.
-- Paul David Liehr, Letter to the editor, The Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2005

''Professional visualizer'' Suzy Coyle dances in the fountain, 1988The '80s found the fountain being increasingly tagged and vandalized, and the early '90s found many homeless men camped in their cars near the fountain on Riverside Drive. The fountain underwent a renovation and rededicated in 1996. The bulbs and electrical wiring were replaced, and the controller that activated the jets and colors tuned up. In 2001, Mulholland's granddaughter, Catherine, was the guest of honor at ceremonies celebrating the 99th anniversary of the founding of the L.A. water system. She sat at the same fountain where, sixty years earlier, she had watched her sister Patricia turn the water on for thousands of people to see.

Continual swims, budget constraints and the natural aging process again took its toll on the grand old fountain. In 2012, the fountain was closed and drained to prepare for renovations, which were completed in early 2013. The jets and meter box were again tuned up, broken lights replaced, and the fountain base and its concrete wall cleaned and coated to prevent leaks.

In August 2013, the LADWP held a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction on the new Aqueduct Centennial Garden, which is scheduled to open in time for the 100th anniversary of the Aqueduct's opening on November 5. According to senior assistant manager James McDaniel: "When we complete this project in late October, the new garden will celebrate the engineering marvel and serve as a showcase for the many possibilities of California Friendly, water-wise landscaping that we encourage our residential and commercial customers to install in their own yards and workplaces."

But perhaps the most interesting statement was not about the lovely new garden, but about Mulholland himself. Councilmember Tom LaBonge spoke at the groundbreaking, again reasserting Mulholland's legacy:

"Water is Los Angeles's past, present, and future. This space, with the restored Mulholland Fountain and the new Los Angeles Aqueduct Centennial Garden, is a great living memorial to a remarkable man who influenced so much of our collective history and helped build a world-class city."

The shades of grey have been washed away by cool, clear water.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

_____

1 "Mulholland Fountain" Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1937
2 "Memorial to be dedicated to William Mulholland" Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1940
3 "Mulholland fete tonight" Los Angeles Times, Aug 1, 1940
4 "American legion promises great Coliseum show" Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1941
5 "Professional visualizer, to get rejuvenated" Los Angeles Times May 17, 1988

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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