Monumental tribute to San Francisco's strength

At a time when world is shaken by earthquakes, recently rededicatedfountain symbolizes city's survival after 1906 disaster.

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Big disasters make big headlines everywhere. But having been rattled by a large earthquake 10 years ago and having risen from the ashes of a great one nearly a century ago, there has been a certain attentiveness in this city to the seismic disasters of late in Turkey and Greece.

There is sympathy, of course. Yet it seems to go a shade deeper than that, something approaching an experience-hardened confidence that the rebuilding of structures and spirit is sure to follow.

Such was the backdrop to a dedication along one of San Francisco's boulevards just a few days ago. It marked the refurbishment of an ornate, bronze-colored fountain that, despite its modest size, is a powerful and constant reminder to San Franciscans of what it means to pick up the pieces and carry on.

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Distant disasters added some poignancy to the day, but the rededication of Lotta's Fountain was more a celebration than a commemoration.

Against a slapping wind and under gray skies so typical of summer in San Francisco, about 200 people gathered at noon to cheer as a white cape dropped from Lotta's Fountain, painstakingly restored after years of neglect.

"This is where you came to hang after the great quake," Mayor Willie Brown reminded the crowd. Indeed, as much of the city lay in smoking ruins after the 1906 disaster, the fountain served as the city's central meeting place where people could relocate loved ones and just commiserate.

Like the hub of a wheel, Lotta's Fountain provided the core from which the spokes of renewal could emanate. And that link with the rebuilding spirit has never been forgotten. Each April, a small group of locals who were around during the 1906 quake gather around the fountain in the early morning hours.

Now, that tribute is as much one to the city's revitalization as to the fountain itself, which was once broadsided by a car and remained overshadowed for years by nearby development.

If midlife was somewhat inglorious for Lotta's Fountain, its start was not. It was given to the city in 1875 by actress and entertainer Lotta Crabtree who got her start in this city and showed her gratitude by sending the iron fountain by sailing ship from Philadelphia around Cape Horn.

Fashioned after a lighthouse prop from one of her plays, the fountain provided a social gathering place for people and horses. Flowing water and an attached tin cup made it something of a public luxury for each. Adding to its distinctiveness, a gas lantern burned in its crown.

In the wake of 1906, the fountain's profile grew, in part because as city historian Gladys Hansen points out, "most of the buildings around it went down."

In 1910 the fountain, located on Market Street several blocks west of the bay, served as backdrop for one of the largest outdoor gatherings the city had ever seen. Well known opera singer Madame Luisa Tetrazzini gave an outdoor performance that drew 250,000 people into the streets on a balmy Christmas Eve.

The restoration job was shepherded through by San Francisco Arts Commission program director Debra Lehane.

The fountain was in such disrepair it had to be dismantled and reassembled piece by piece, a process that took nearly two years. In the days before its rededication, Ms. Lehane was on site, overseeing the final touches for the city's oldest monument.

For Lehane, the fountain "is a bridge" from one century to the next.

For Ms. Hansen, the monument is "a symbol of survival," befitting a city with the phoenix on its flag.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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