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Best Public Fountains

These waterworks put on a sprightly show day and night

Photograph by Karl Drilling

Long before elaborate fountains became developers’ favorite diversions, they served as upwellings of L.A. pride. Their look reflected a time and sensibility, whether it was space-age optimism or old-world nostalgia, and their location in parks or on civic plazas mandated sharing. That they used such a scarce resource—water—only enhanced their preciousness. While their fortunes have ebbed and flowed (during severe drought conditions, they’re often silenced), these still have the power to thrill. 

Founding Father
What better way to honor the man who hydrated L.A.? The William Mulholland Memorial Fountain (intersection of Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard, Los Feliz) pays tribute to the immigrant engineer who built the controversial aqueduct that brings water from the Owens Valley to local pipes. Dedicated in 1940, five years after Mulholland’s death, the multiringed streamline moderne fountain sprays jets of water 50 feet into the air. At night it is bathed in colored lights that Angelenos have likened to Kool-Aid. The location was chosen for its high visibility; it was also where Mulholland lived in a one-room shack during his first job clearing the city’s zanja madre—the primary water ditch—of weeds and debris. 

Sixties Psychedelic
Our civic center was a boomtown of fountain building in the ’60s. The most subtle is the Topographical Map outside the Richard Neutra-designed Hall of Records (320 W. Temple St., downtown). Water trickles gently down the face of the mosaic—designed by artist Joseph Young in 1962 and restored in 2007—that forms a map of regional rivers, reservoirs, and mountains. A couple of blocks away at the Music Center, water erupts in heart-thumping bursts at the base of Peace on earth (135 N. Grand Ave., downtown), the 1969 Jacques Lipchitz statue topped with a dove. For star quality check out the john ferraro building (111 N. Hope St., downtown) that houses the Department of Water & Power. A massive moat encircles the 1964 glass-and-steel structure, bookended at its north and south ends by a row of four high-flying fountains, lit a fiery orange at night. Currently dry for maintenance work, the moat and its fountains should be back in action in May. Until then you can catch them in Inception

Little Italy
Get the Piazza del Popolo experience without the jet lag at the Neptune Fountain, a confection of seashells, dolphins, and other ocean dwellers that’s adorned Palos Verdes’ Malaga Cove Plaza (Palos Verdes Drive West, Palos Verdes Estates) since 1930. A replica of a 16th-century Italian bronze, the fountain graces a tranquil 1920s Spanish-style plaza—part of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s master plan for a Mediterranean wonderland. Parental advisory: Water shoots unabashedly from the breasts of the Nereids, but you can distract the most impressionable in your group with a quick trip to the nearby library, designed by Huntington Library architect Myron Hunt.

Art Park
Behind the landmark Central Library (630 W. 5th St., downtown), cypress, magnolia, and olive trees shade the escape-from-it-all Maguire Gardens, which were embellished with two pieces of fountain art in 1993. The glittering minerals used by Laddie John Dill and Mineo Mizuno to render Nature’s Analogy, on the park’s 5th Street side, evoke the earth beneath the pavement, while Lawrence Halprin and Jud Fine’s Grotto Fountain, off Flower Street, reminds us of a nation’s civil liberties. The words of the 14th Amendment are engraved along the basin’s base. A series of rectangular tiers feeds water into the arch-crowned reflecting pool. 

Free Fall
For his lushly landscaped Midwick View Estates, Monterey Park developer Peter Snyder envisioned a community of grand Spanish colonial revival homes that would transcend those of Beverly Hills. The Depression put an end to his dream but not before he had built the cascades (700 S. Atlantic Ave., Monterey Park), a moderne fountain that sends water bouncing down the steps of a bright blue 70-foot canal in the grassy park. On weekends the 1929 installation is enveloped in quinceañera finery during family photo ops.