Tourists pose for a photo in front of Ruth Asawa's iconic fountain in Union Square.
Tourists pose for a photo in front of Ruth Asawa’s iconic fountain in Union Square.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Sculptor Ruth Asawa’s name has been in the news recently, not only because of her passing on Aug. 6 at the age of 87, but also because two of her Bay Area works appeared to be threatened by development.

One of them is the iconic San Francisco Fountain, which has stood next to the Grand Hyatt on Union Square for more than 40 years. Consisting of 41 bronze plaques, each depicting a San Francisco landmark, the fountain embodies Asawa’s philosophy — that art belongs to everyone. Friends, family members and more than 100 children helped to sculpt the pieces in baker’s clay, which was then taken to the foundry for casting.

Commissioned by Hyatt in 1970 and completed in 1972, the fountain stands 7 feet tall and is more than 14 feet in diameter. The scenes include a cable car, City Hall, Ghirardelli Square, the Opera House, Chinatown, Japantown, the Ferry Building, the Conservatory of Flowers, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, and the Palace of Fine Arts. There are also whimsical figures such as Snoopy, Superman, and characters from “The Wizard of Oz.”

To this day, tourists stop and look at the fountain, take pictures of it, then have their pictures taken with it. There are so many details that it might take repeated visits to see all of them.

Apple, which has a store on Stockton and Ellis streets, plans to build a larger store on the site of the former Levi’s building next to the Hyatt. Concerns were raised when the initial design proposal, submitted to the city in May, did not include the fountain.

Patty Wada, regional director of the JACL’s Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District, was among the community leaders calling for preservation of the fountain, and the issue was raised by Commissioner Diane Matsuda at a meeting of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

In its preliminary project assessment in June, the San Francisco Planning Department recommended to Apple: “Consider the retention or relocation of the Ruth Asawa fountain as a part of the new reconfigured plaza, perhaps connecting it to, and integrating it with, another water theme within the plaza. If not feasible, the department would like to work with the sponsors to find an alternative location for its display within the city.”

The San Francisco Chronicle said in a June 4 editorial, “Maybe computer giant Apple didn’t know about the beloved Ruth Asawa fountain near Union Square when it proposed plopping a squat glass-and-steel box on the site to house its new downtown store. The company knows now. Public outcry was instantaneous when word got out that it wanted to replace an old triangular building at Post and Stockton streets with a modernistic structure that pays no attention to the traditional architecture of the area. And plans filed with the city seemed to have no room for the 40-year-old fountain …”

San Francisco resident Sheila Tenney launched an online petition directed at Mayor Ed Lee and Apple CEO Tim Cook. “The fountain was custom-built for that space alone,” she wrote. “It is a landmark created by our beloved and renowned artist Ruth Asawa in collaboration with children, friends, and families of San Francisco. Apple plans to remove the fountain from its current location, in order to build their new flagship San Francisco store. This is sad and unacceptable to many of us. The fountain is a part of our history and a reminder how San Francisco came to be the city that it is today.

“Many of us enjoy, use and purchase Apple products on a regular basis. They employ some of the most brilliant and creative minds in the world. We respectfully ask Apple to utilize that creativity and brilliance to find a solution that will keep the fountain in its place. Let’s work together to preserve our history, and look toward our future.”

Apple spokesperson Michaela Wilkinson said that the fountain “is a beloved local monument and an important part of Union Square,” and that the company always intended to find the “best possible location where it can live on in the community when the city approves the project.”

Apple later submitted a rendering that clearly shows where the fountain will be.

San Francisco Chronicle design critic John King, who had raised questions about plans for the fountain, wrote on Aug. 26, “Ruth Asawa fans can rest easy — the artist’s beloved bronze fountain near Union Square is staying pretty much right where it is. Apple has presented city officials with a revised design for the flagship store it wants to build across from Union Square at Post and Stockton streets. And where the initial proposal in May consigned the fountain to an unknown fate, it now will stand amid steps leading up to a plaza between the back of the Apple Store and the side of the Grand Hyatt San Francisco.”

That announcement came one day before Asawa’s memorial service, which was held at Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse Band Shell — one of the landmarks depicted on the fountain. Attendees were invited to view Asawa’s distinctive wire sculptures at the nearby M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

The program included performances by singers, musicians and taiko drummers from Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and speeches by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, actor Peter Coyote, San Francisco State University Fine Arts Gallery Director Mark Johnson, and Asawa’s son Paul Lanier, daughter Addie Lanier, and grandson Xavier Lanier Jr. (She is survived by five children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.)

Pelosi, who has represented San Francisco in Congress since 1987, also eulogized Asawa in the House of Representatives on Sept. 6. “On Aug. 6, San Francisco lost a visionary artist, educator, community activist, civic leader and beloved friend,” she said. “Ruth Asawa was an internationally recognized sculptor who will be long remembered for her public works of art, her extraordinary wire sculptures, and her commitment to the people of San Francisco, especially our children. Her memory will embolden future generations to devote their passions to the freedom of self-expression and public betterment …

“Ruth’s public works include such recognizable San Francisco landmarks as the Andrea Mermaid Fountain at Ghirardelli Square, the Hyatt on Union Square Fountain, the Buchanan Mall Fountains in Japantown, the Aurora Fountain at Bayside Plaza, and the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State. Other great works in the San Francisco Bay Area include the Japanese American Internment Memorial in front of the Federal Building in San Jose …

“Ruth will be forever remembered for her dedication to our children and her loving work to make our schools and city more joyful learning environments. Her legacy will live on in the young artists who attend Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, which she founded. She also founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop, which established the artist-in-residence model of public arts education. It is a national model.”

San Francisco City Hall is among the landmarks at the top of the fountain.
San Francisco City Hall is among the landmarks at the top of the fountain.

Santa Rosa Fountain

Coincidentally, there was a similar situation in Sonoma County. With the participation of children from Luther Burbank Elementary School, Asawa had created a series of bas-relief friezes depicting local history for a fountain in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, which was dedicated in 1987.

According to Gaye LeBaron of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the figures and scenes on the panels include the Luther Burbank House and Garden, McDonald Mansion, Jack London’s Wolf House, Carillo Adobe, the Fountaingrove Round Barn (built for winemaker Kanaye Nagasawa), a beer wagon from Grace Bros. Brewery, Fred Wiseman’s 1911 airplane, a Chinese worker with baskets slung over his shoulders, and 19th century photographer Joseph Henry Downing.

Upon learning of the city’s plans to remove the fountain, the Sonoma County JACL issued the following statement: “This fountain is one of only a dozen public commissions that Asawa (1926-2013) completed throughout Northern California. Many Asian American community members are aware of Asawa’s importance in art history. The chapter reiterates the importance of her contributions to the community.

“Asawa was known in the Bay Area as the ‘Fountain Lady.’ Her work is included in prominent art collections such as the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. She was honored for her work with many awards and was the subject of numerous publications.

“With the passage of E.O. 9066, her family was incarcerated along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans as a result of war hysteria, racism and lack of political leadership. Ruth’s father, Umakichi, was arrested by FBI agents. Ruth would not see him again until 1948. The remaining family members lived in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack assembly center for much of 1942, then transferred to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

“She spent her youth years in an incarceration camp, graduating from an ill-staffed and under-equipped internment center high school. She attended Milwaukee State Teachers College intending to become an art teacher, but was unable to get hired for the requisite practice teaching to complete her degree due to the post-war prejudice of the time.

“Ms. Asawa once said of her incarceration years, ‘Sometimes good comes through adversity.’ She used personal life experiences to guide her vision in her art; the fulfillment of life through adversity. Her art activism strove to make art accessible to all, especially young people. The fountains and murals were her way of allowing the people to feel connected to the art piece and experience its peaceful beauty.

“Ms. Asawa would go on to serve on the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and become a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. As an arts advocate, her focus was always on arts education.

“Ms. Asawa recently passed away, which makes her life’s work that much more precious to preserve. It seems a shame to have such a prominent piece of art in Santa Rosa deconstructed with the potential of damage due to the fragile nature of the sculpture’s panels.

“The Sonoma County JACL Chapter strongly urges the planning committee to maintain this particular element of the Courthouse Square by preserving this eminent sculpture it in its original form.”

On Aug. 20, The Press Democrat reported that the plan would involve the removal of the bandstand, raised lawn and fountain, but the Asawa panels would be reintroduced into the new square.

“We definitely don’t want to lose it,” Mayor Scott Bartley told The Chronicle.

So although the Fountain Lady is gone, her sculptures will live on for a long time to come.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

More details from the San Francisco fountain: Chinatown and the Chinese New Year Parade.
More details from the San Francisco fountain: Chinatown and the Chinese New Year Parade.
Palace of the Legion of Honor, one of San Francisco's fine arts museums.
Palace of the Legion of Honor, one of San Francisco’s fine arts museums.
Ghirardelli Square, site of Asawa's famous Mermaid Fountain.
Ghirardelli Square, site of Asawa’s famous Mermaid Fountain.
Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world."
Lombard Street, “the crookedest street in the world.”
Fanciful figures include Linus from the "Peanuts" comic strip, waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin.
Fanciful figures include Linus from the “Peanuts” comic strip, waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin.
Coit Tower.
Coit Tower.
The Ferry Building and other waterfront sites are at the base of the fountain.
The Ferry Building and other waterfront sites are at the base of the fountain.
The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
The fountain includes a variety of creatures, both real and imaginary.
The fountain includes a variety of creatures, both real and imaginary.





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