The Fountain at The Circle, with the four signature bears. (Maggie Galloway/KQED)
If you’re in Berkeley and wander far enough up Marin Avenue, there’s no doubt you’ll run into the Fountain at The Circle. The grand Beaux Arts fountain has become a symbol of the neighborhood and has inspired numerous paintings and drawings. It even has its own Berkeley Public Library card design.
“Sometimes I take two turns around The Circle just because it looks so cool,” says Charlie Wilson, a landscape architect and member of the Friends of the Fountain and Walk, a nonprofit tasked with caring for the fountain, as well as the balustrade that surrounds The Circle, which is located at the foot of the Berkeley Hills.
But if you take your eyes off the fountain and bring your attention to the traffic circle, which sees 30,000 cars swerve around it each day, you might notice a particular theme to The Circle’s connecting streets: Most are named after California counties.
“We have Marin, Los Angeles, Del Norte, Mendocino,” says Wilson. Nearby you’ll find Merced Street, Solano Avenue, Santa Barbara Road and more.
These street names hint at the stately history behind this roundabout — and how one developer’s dream almost changed California history forever.
Boom Times for Berkeley
The story of this Berkeley circle starts at the turn of the 20th century. When Berkeley transitioned from open grasslands and rolling hillsides to a boom town. Between 1900 and 1910, Berkeley’s population more than tripled, growing from 13,214 to 40,434.
“A big chunk of it were people [resettling after the] earthquake, but also the university was growing very rapidly, and maybe most dramatically of all: a big electric trolley system was being created in Berkeley,” says Chuck Wollenberg, a board member of the Berkeley Historical Society, former professor at Berkeley City College and author of “Berkeley: A City in History.”
With a growing population, demand grew for new housing. Enter Louis Titus, head of the Berkeley Development Company. He helped develop a good portion of Berkeley and owned about 1,000 acres of land in or near the Berkeley Hills, including where The Circle sits today.
A Case for the Capital
Titus had something special in mind for his land. He announced his proposal at a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Feb. 18, 1907, and according to the Berkeley Gazette, it created quite a stir:
“A bombshell exploded in town hall last night, the echo of which is today resounding throughout the entire state, when the proposition to move the state capital from Sacramento to Berkeley was proposed amid a scene of the greatest enthusiasm Berkeley ever witnessed.”
Titus offered to donate 40 acres of land as the California State Capitol site, right next to where The Fountain at The Circle stands today.
Besides profiting the city and the developers tremendously, Wollenberg says supporters wanted to bring the capital down to the Bay Area, “where the action was.” In 1900 about 45 percent of California’s population lived in the Bay Area. A flyer titled “Ten Reasons Why the Capital of the State Should be Moved to Berkeley” suggested that Sacramento was too far removed from the citizens and businesses of the state.
The legislators might have been open to the idea because their current building in Sacramento was becoming cramped and needed extensive repairs. Not to mention, Sacramento was uncomfortably hot in the summer compared to Berkeley’s more temperate climate.
In addition, some preferred that Berkeley was a dry city. Sacramento had a lively saloon scene.
“So the legislators would be much more likely to do their duty,” says Trish Hawthorne a longtime Berkeley resident and author of the essay "Almost the State Capital" as featured in “Exactly Opposite the Golden Gate: Essays on Berkeley’s History.”
Things moved pretty quickly after the initial proposal. Within days it was voted on and approved locally, and the legislators were invited down from Sacramento to look at the proposed site.
“There was a plea for anyone who had an automobile to bring it so that the Legislature could be driven up to the Capitol site,” says Hawthorne. “So you can imagine what a small town this was, that every car that was available would be used.”
It must have worked because by early March 1907, the State Senate, Assembly and the governor approved the proposal, placing a Capital Removal Measure on the ballot for the next general election in November 1908.
In the meantime, Titus helped develop the Berkeley Hills, and The Circle was built in 1907. Hawthorne says the streets coming off The Circle were named after California counties to garner support from the rest of the state. Maybe if your county got a street, you’d vote for the move.
From Dream to Downturn
Before Californians could vote in 1908, there was an economic slump.
“There was a big boom after the earthquake, but then there was also not exactly a crash, but a recession, because so much building had been done and so much capital expended,” says Hawthorne. “Things weren't looking as good by November of 1908.”
On a national scale, the Panic of 1907 had set in, and with the following recession Californians might have been even less excited to spend money on a costly move to a new capital.
The measure lost by a wide margin. It passed only in Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Hawthorne says citizens in the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas probably worked against the measure.
And while a dry capital was an advantage for some, it wasn’t well received by some of the Legislature and the liquor lobbyists.
“The idea was, well, if you're gonna have a legislature, you needed a good bar scene,” says Wollenberg.
Hawthorne adds that some people were suspicious this was nothing more than a ploy to drum up business for Titus and other developers. Whatever the case, Californians voted not to move their capital in 1908.
Better Off for Berkeley?
The history of the Bay Area probably would have taken a different course if Berkeley had become a capital city. Wollenberg suggests a closer capital could have impacted the conflict between Gov. Ronald Reagan and the political activists at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
“If that contest, instead of being 70 or 80 miles away, was a mile and a half away ... it would have changed the environment of that era tremendously,” he says.
Hawthorne adds that the culture would have been different if both the capital and the university had shared Berkeley.
“It would have a much more institutional feel overall,” she says. “So I'm glad it didn't happen.”
A Future With the Fountain
Though a Capitol building was never built, The Circle and its streets remained, and in 1911 the fountain was built at its center, three years after the vote failed. The fountain was used to publicize the new Northbrae development and advertised as Berkeley’s first public work of art.
The fountain and circle were designed by John Galen Howard. He was one of the main architects of the UC Berkeley campus that we see today, designing the Campanile and Sather Gate. Those cute little grizzly bear cubs were sculpted by Arthur Putnam. His sculpted sphinxes stand guard outside the de Young Museum and his Snarling Jaguar is featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I think we're lucky that they decided to go ahead with the fountain, because the whole circle and the fountain are a wonderful way to connect all those streets,” says Hawthorne. “But secondly, it's a reminder of a way to find the past in the present with something we live with every day and enjoy.”
That said, those cute grizzly cubs we see today aren’t the originals. In 1957 the fountain was destroyed by a runaway roofing truck. It was rebuilt in 1993, bringing together the Friends of the Fountain and Walk.
Today members like Wilson help the city maintain The Circle, decorate it for the holidays and educate the public on its history. And there’s one thing he wants you to know: “Please tell people not to soap the fountain.”
What may seem like a harmless bunch of bubbles can mean real trouble for fountain owners. Most fountains need to be drained and cleaned, sometimes multiple times, to get out every last sud.
“It's like funny for five seconds and then it's a maintenance problem for us,” says Wilson.
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