That Big Downtown Fire Fountain Is Being Restored

The 1991 artwork seldom worked, now it will burst into flames once per hour

I spent the last night of the 20th century pleading sobriety to the LAPD. For the first time in my life, the Hollywood sign was lit up (I wasn’t), and the shock of seeing those letters shine through the darkness was enough to cause my vehicle to swerve all over the Hollywood freeway. I’ve had the same reaction the couple of times I’ve seen the fountain at Figueroa and Wilshire burst into flames.

It’s a moving experience to encounter a 37-foot column of fire above a downtown street corner. Artist Eric Orr created the piece, called L.A. Prime Matter, in 1991 as the one percent for art component of the 52-story Sanwa Bank tower. Water was supposed to run down the sides, slowed by metal ribs, and flames were to shoot upward from hidden gas jets every 15 or 20 minutes. It seems to have been on the fritz since day one.

Recently Brookfield Property Partners, owners of the high rise, have surrounded the art with scaffolding. It turns out a big piece of bronze fell from near the top of the artwork a few weeks ago. “One of the welds came loose,” Brookfield Vice President Robert Cushman told me. “A panel fell off the upper part of the fountain. As a result we decided to pull it apart and do a thorough inspection.” The inspection turned into a complete restoration of the work. “It will function much like it originally did.”

Orr was one of the light and space artists based in Venice in the 1960s. He worked in elemental materials like water, gold, and lead. He once went downtown and passed out 10,000 bags of fresh air. His first major work was a real gun aimed at the viewer with a foot-pedal trigger. A gallery representing him says he was influenced by a “religio-philosophical conceptualization of space icons found in ancient religions and cultures, such as Egyptian symbolism and Buddhist Spiritualism.” So there you go. Orr died at his studio in 1998.

Sometime early next year the water and plasma will be flowing again. You might not set your watch to it, but the fire waterfall should be more predictable than ever. “It goes off every hour on the hour, plus or minus 30 seconds,” Cushman said. “The flame comes out for a brief moment, and it really is quite spectacular when you do see it.”