Spirits of the City

The Relics and Ruins and Huntington Park

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

Huntington Park’s most striking feature is its superb fountain, a copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (“Fountain of the Turtles”). (Illustration by Paul Madonna)

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed every building on Nob Hill, with a single exception: the Flood mansion on California Street, built by architect Willis Polk. That imposing brownstone was heavily damaged, but the walls remained and it was saved. It now houses the ultra-exclusive Pacific-Union Club. But the Flood mansion isn’t the only reminder of the earthquake and fire. The fountain in Huntington Park, the beautiful little acacia-tree-lined square to the west of the great brownstone, also evokes the 1906 catastrophe — if you know how to look.

In 1872, David D. Colton, who made his fortune buying real estate in 1860, built an ornate wooden mansion with neoclassical details on the future park’s site. When Colton died, his house was bought by Collis Huntington, one of the so-called Big Four railroad tycoons. Huntington died in 1900, and his mansion did not long survive him, being consumed in the 1906 fire. In 1915, Huntington’s widow Arabella (who had kept things all in the plutocratic family by marrying Huntington’s nephew) donated the land to the City for a park. The low granite wall that surrounded the house survived the fire and remains to this day enclosing the park.

An odd piece of historical serendipity, which involves phantom dolphins and tangible turtles, also tenuously connects Huntington Park with the 1906 catastrophe. The park’s most striking feature is its superb fountain, a copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (“Fountain of the Turtles”). The copy, one of four in the United States, was made in Rome in the early 19th century and purchased by the Crocker family for their estate in Hillsborough. When the Hillsborough estate was sold, the Crocker heirs donated the fountain to the City, and it was installed in Huntington Park in 1955.

The original fountain was created in 1582 and installed in the Piazza Maffei, in the heart of Rome’s Jewish quarter. Like all fountains in Rome, the Fontana delli Mattei, as it was originally called, was intended to provide drinking water for residents. But low water pressure — the ancient aqueduct that fed the fountain by gravity flowed from a reservoir only 67 feet above sea level — reduced its flow to a trickle. As a result, four of the dolphins that originally spouted water from the fountain’s brim were removed and replaced in the mid-17th century with the turtles that now grace it.

The fire that destroyed the Huntington mansion, on the site where the fountain now stands, raged out of control in large part because the aqueducts that provided San Francisco’s water were ruptured by the earthquake — a historical parallel mutely evoked by those four bronze turtles. A final poignant reminder of the fire that burned the opulent mansions on Nob Hill stands not on the hill itself but on the shores of Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. The columns known as the “Portals of the Past” were the only things that survived of the Towne mansion, which stood a few yards away from Huntington Park, on the corner of California and Mason. They were donated to the City and placed in the park in 1909.

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