Oakland stone landmarks: The McElroy Fountain revisited

I made a brief post about this fountain a few years ago — it was the first “Oakland stone landmark” post — but a reader’s question pushed me all the way into a worthy rabbit hole.

When John E. McElroy died unexpectedly on 24 March 1909 at less than forty years of age, the city of Oakland mourned a public benefactor whose unborn child would never know him. As the City Attorney, McElroy wrested back Oakland’s waterfront lands from the railroad, undoing one of the great crimes of our founder, the scoundrel Horace Carpentier. He also helped establish our reputation as a legitimate City Beautiful in a way that went beyond grand boulevards and splendid public buildings: children’s playgrounds. He was elected four times; the last time both the Democrats and the Republicans endorsed him.

Park Commissioner James Edoff, a close collaborator and friend, launched a private donation drive to honor McElroy’s memory with a large fountain in Lakeside Park. The design, by Park Commission architect Walter Reed, was submitted in March 1910. A scale model was put on display 7 July 1910, and the Tribune reported, “Granite, marble and concrete are up for the consideration of the commission and as soon as the decision is made and the funds which the city will contribute towards its erection are turned over to the commission the work will begin. It is thought that the commission will decide in favor of the use of granite in the construction.”

Bids came in that August from six companies, including the Raymond Company (whose Sierra White granite clads City Hall) and California Granite Company, and the Colusa Sandstone Company won the job. The city chipped in the majority of the $15,000 needed.

I suspect that the bids fell into two categories: the granite companies could supply their own stone while the other firms could emphasize their skills and connections.

Colusa Sandstone Company was a very successful firm whose quarries, just east of Sites and still visible today, supplied the stone and stoneworkers for some of San Francisco’s finest Belle Epoque landmarks: the Ferry Building, the Emporium Building, the Kohl Building, the Spreckels Building and more. They could arrange for premium stone from the best sources and finish it to the highest state of artisanship.

That October the Tribune reported, “The basin and other portions of the fountain will be of white marble, for which the city has provided.” Specifically, as other stories reported, it was Georgia marble.

“Georgia marble” was effectively a trademark at the time. Then and today, this stone comes exclusively from Pickens County in northwestern Georgia, west of the former gold rush town of Dahlonega and home of an annual marble festival. The Georgia Geologic Survey described the rock and the marble industry as of 1907, when the state was second only to Vermont in the value of its output. Many buildings in Washington DC use Georgia marble. The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial sits on stone identical to the McElroy Fountain.

All the evidence points to the Georgia Marble Company’s Cherokee Quarry, located east of Tate, which at the time supplied a coarse-grained stone of white or “clouded” color with light blue-gray bands. See some of it at the historic Tate mansion on the quarry grounds.

Marble is what happens to limestone when it’s buried and subjected to the pressure and heat found several miles underground. Old geologic reports assign this marble an Early Cambrian age, making it a good half-billion years old. It was originally a body of limestone that collected on the floor of the Iapetus Ocean, which resembled today’s Atlantic in being the result of continental rifting. The metamorphism that turned this stone to marble happened later, in Ordovician time, when plate tectonics forced the coasts of the Iapetus Ocean back together. This continental collision wrinkled and folded the rocks at the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, in the inner Piedmont and Blue Ridge belts.

The bluish streaks are considered to be remnants of bedding in the original limestone. They have a little magnesium in them and a touch of iron.

Cherokee Quarry marble is exceptionally pure and notably coarse grained, both of which account for its strength and endurance.

Now that I know more about this distinctive stone, I expect to recognize it everywhere.

In June of 1911 bids were received on the tiling and mosaic work: “The marble tiling and mosaic work will be one of the most beautiful portions of the fountain. Of four colors of imported marble, the stone will be wrought into designs at the entrances in consonance with the rest of the fountain.” Marbles to be used in the tiling and mosaic are green Verdi antique, white Alaska, or heavily veined Italian, red Numidian, yellow light Sienna and nemesis marble.” (Visit the Getty Museum’s online thesaurus for more on some of these.)

Work on the mosaic was still in progress when the Park Commission formally accepted the fountain on 6 July 1911, only 16 months after McElroy’s death. The fountain was dedicated on 17 September 1911, in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands. After a series of speeches and musical selections, McElroy’s little boy, John Jr., turned the fountain on. Then Scott’s Band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” followed by “America” with the crowd singing along.

Even the water is special. The fountain lies on top of a reservoir that serves the Lakeside Park grounds. It was once (and may still be) fed with groundwater from two wells nearby, perhaps in one of those nondescript little huts in the park.

The 11 years since my previous post have not been kind to this exceptional structure.

4 Responses to “Oakland stone landmarks: The McElroy Fountain revisited”

  1. Andrew Alden Says:

    What I said is exactly true.

  2. texasgeoman Says:

    thx, as always for some interesting info Andrew. You say ” The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial sits on stone identical to the McElroy Fountain.” i.,e., Georgia Marble?

    But i thought the Lincoln Memorial was made with Colorado Yule Marble?

    Click to access b2162.pdf


  3. charlotte steinzig Says:

    I’m happy for this lengthy update, but I’m sad for the ending of not doing so well. And I’ll never look at this marble in the same way again — as always, thanks to your writing and my old geology professor.

  4. Richard Sintchak Says:

    “ The 11 years since my previous post have not been kind to this exceptional structure.”

    How so? I going to make a point to go check it out myself when I can but am just curious. Though I suspect I know what you mean. Shame really as your post from 2011 mention it as newly refurbished. I guess once that’s done everyone just turns their heads. Sad to see something that clearly represented such appreciation of a man so well-liked and honored to now see his memorial and such a beautiful structure made with such fascinating detail and care just literally left to sit almost unforgotten and unappreciated.

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