An enduring fixation that runs deep

Times Staff Writer

BROACH the subject of fountains, and people tend to unravel slightly, as if recalling their childhood, a favorite food or some particular delight. It is as if they, and only they, truly appreciate a fountain’s manifold charms. I used to do this, until I noticed others also claiming the same degree of regard. At some point it struck me: It’s primal. Everyone loves a fountain.

Civilization has only been possible where there is water or where water can be imported. After drinking, bathing and irrigating crops, any society lucky enough to have water left over has responded by exalting it in fountains. As the ability to pump water farther and farther from natural sources improved, fountain design became ever more euphoric. Water was spilled over stone stairs, spouted from fonts, settled in reflecting pools and spit from booby traps. Fountains contained images of gods, kings, sprites, nymphs, frogs. There were religious fountains, ribald ones, heroic models and the stillest of pools for contemplation.

To get a sense of the giddy progression through the ages, one needn’t go to the Taj Mahal, Granada, Tivoli, Chatsworth or Versailles. The nearest garden center with a fountain yard will do. There is a fountain for every conceivable architectural style, and more than a few for inconceivable ones. A combination of choice and availability, however, has its pitfalls. Plants may come and go. Fountains are for life. As the owner of a double-bowled “Spanish” fountain with four lion heads, I can attest that the day my fountain was delivered, it was there to stay. It weighed almost 800 pounds dry.


I love the voluptuous setting of the two basins fed by an artichoke-shaped spout at the top. But to this day I’m not sure what possessed me with the motif. Why lions? I’m a dog person.

The answer as to how spitting lions heads came to adorn fountains is surely embedded somewhere in the 4,000-year history from the reflecting pools of ancient Araby to the water show outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas. For all I know, my fountain might contain a sacred reference to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah; it might represent a Freemason’s belief system carved around a bowl, or it simply might mean that some early fountain carver enjoyed rendering lions.

What I do know is that, in the case of my four lions, Italians imported the style. A. Silvestri Co., a Bay Area firm that made my fountain and serves many Southern California showrooms, was founded by a Tuscan. It has for the last half-century scaled down some of the most heroic and whimsical fountains of Europe for the American home market.

“When we started,” says its founder, Luigi Silvestri, “most fountains were Mediterranean and classic.” But now, he says, American tastes are changing. “Now we make a new one every year,” he says. “Modern. Old. Wall. We never know what’s going on.” Asked if most of the other fountain makers around San Francisco are Italian, Silvestri laughs and says, “Most are my family.”

Cathy Hough, general manager of the Marina del Rey Garden Center in Venice, oversees one of the best stocks of ready-made fountains in Los Angeles. She has eight suppliers, including Silvestri. Standing by a dark, stained, seemingly less Italian and more pueblo-style model, she slaps it affectionately and says that it comes from a rival firm called Giannini Garden Ornaments. “Silvestri’s daughter.”

Hough leaves style and iconography to the customer. Her job is providing choice. Simple urns with subtle cascading overflows? She’s got it. Spitting lions, Egyptian frescoes, ye olde horse troughs, Mission? Check, check, check, check. Terra cotta-like finishes? Yep. Iron? You bet. Marble effect? Absolutely. Resin models so light they could be suspended from drywall? Those too.

The one area where she will intervene is if a customer tries to buy a fountain without seeing water run in it. If one is dry on her lot, or any lot, ask the vendor to fill it. Watching light catch droplets whipped by an ocean breeze from a two-tier scallop shell number, I take her point.

As a hummingbird lights on the top fount of a multi-tiered bowl fountain much like my own, I am reminded why I chose the same general arrangement. However, moments later, in another corner of the yard, listening to a simpler model, where the water overflowed gently down all sides of the bowl rather than from four spitting lions, I realized that I preferred the gentler sound from the evenly cascading model.

The music created by falling water is so important to landscape architect Mia Lehrer of the Los Angeles firm Mia Lehrer + Associates that she urges her clients to start thinking about sound before shape.

“I always ask: ‘Are you looking for something rambunctious? Or something that’s soothing and more integrated into the sounds of nature?’ ” One client, the mother of a toddler, decided a favorite sound was her son and a friend peeing. “So we ended up with a fountain with two little spouts.”

Lehrer grew up in El Salvador, loves the sound of rain, and her personal favorite is a water wall. She also praises the tranquillity of Moorish-style pools, where water is infused with the softest of burbles by side jets. Actually, get her started and it turns out that she has quite a few favorite styles, particularly the Mexican approach of running water over stone. “This element, this shape getting wet, there’s something delicious about it.”

Lehrer cannot remember how many fountains she has installed in private gardens around Los Angeles. However, her second piece of advice after considering the sound is to start small. “I learned that a fountain doesn’t have to be big, that small is wondrous.” The smaller the setting, the bigger small fountains sound.

There’s another reason that imposing civic styles don’t necessarily translate well to home gardens. They’re not supposed to. Claire Kahn of the San Fernando Valley firm Wet Design is one of the team members who choreographed the water shows at Universal City Walk, California Plaza and the Music Center. It would be a rare private garden that could accommodate their vigor. They were expressly intended, she says, to inspire reverence, awe and joy in a public setting.

Once, fountains plumbed water from moving sources, a river, wellspring or snowmelt. In the modern fountain, a standing supply of water is constantly recycled and aerated by a pump. The art becomes keeping the fountain topped up and water clean.

The first task is easy. Anyone lucky enough to have a fountain in our fair city will tend to check it most days. The second is harder. Where there is water, there will be nutrients that get in the water, then sunlight hitting it enough to provoke algae growth. Hough suggests algae-cides. Fine print on the back of the packet declares it safe for birds and mammals, but bad news for fish.

So do not use it if you have mosquito fish in the fountain. Myself, I can see how green slime might not play well in a showroom, but I enjoy the antique quality that the combination of lichen and algae is giving my lions. When the glop begins suffocating the water, I reach in and pull it out by the handful and drop it onto the ferns below. Unsure as to the scientific merit of this approach to slime control, I checked in with Greg Pasternack, professor of watershed hydrology at UC Davis. “That works,” he says. Placing a fountain in shade will also help slow algae growth. What everyone, especially Hough, recommends against, is using bleach. It damages the fountain, plants around it and makes the garden smell like a laundry room.

For those interested in the history of the fountain, Bryan R. Hirst, a graduate student at Kingston University in London, was good enough to put his entirely readable and informative dissertation online at In this, he relates the purist’s sentiment that fountains lost their magic sometime in the 19th century, after the introduction of the mechanized pump.

To be sure, a fountain has never been the same status symbol since they stopped requiring Himalayan snowmelt, a wellspring or some natural source of water to run them. However, writing as someone with a special regard for fountains, I have two responses.

First: Bah. May there be one in every garden, whether silent modernist water mirror or babbling fairy grotto. The second is: For those who, like me, are too inept to build their own fountain and too poor to have a designer do it for them, this is the season to visit the fountain showrooms. Fountains tend to go on sale in wintertime, and a certain Tuscan connection in the Bay Area tells me that delivery times are fast.



A flood of options

Los Angeles is thick with fountain showrooms. The best way to find one is to go to a manufacturer’s or retailer’s website and follow the links. A. Silvestri and Pottery Etc. have good links.


A. Silvestri Co.,

Pottery Etc., 7441 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park; (818) 704-0741.

Armstrong Garden Centers,

Marina del Rey Garden Center, 13198 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey, (310) 823-5956.

Moorish tile fountains: Badia Design, 5440 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood,

Ron Miller, 600 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 930-0466.

Water candles: Wet Design, the firm behind the civic fountains at California Plaza, Universal City Walk and the Music Center, produces a set of three water candles scaled down for home use. $2,800. View online at

Do it yourself

There are many fountain and pond construction books. “Outdoor Water Features” by Alan and Gill Bridgewater has instructions for 16 fountains.

Fountain gazing

To admire our best civic fountains, head downtown to Grand Avenue. Start at the Water Court at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., then proceed along the reflecting pools of the Museum of Contemporary Art to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Climb the stairs off Grand to see the Delft china-tiled fountain by Frank Gehry. Proceed to the Music Center to see the Wet Design fountain at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Then go to Temple to see the fountain at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Head southeast to see the midcentury fountain amid the courthouses on Hill and Temple.

-- Emily Green