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Fountain Prayer for Rain: A Tongva in Beverly Hills, California, USA

On August 3, 1769, father Juan Crespi, member of a Spanish expedition of exploration into persent-day California, noted in his diary that they came to 'a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rose bushes'. A land of plenty - that is what Beverly Hills is today, of course - it had been in a very different way many centuries before. The Tongva - later called the Gabriellinos after the mission station of San Gabriel that made them into Christians - in their Takic Uto-Aztecan language had called this place The Gathering of Waters, later translated by the Mexican Spaniards as El Rodeo de las Aguas. Settlement came within half a century when the Mexican governor of California in 1838 gave this land to one Maria Rita Valdez Villa, the stalwart Afro-Latino widow of a Spanish colonial soldier. She established a prosperous ranch here, and set in motion a development of which the rest, as we say, is history.

In need of fresh air in the face of urban development, the town fathers of Beverly Hills decided to create a park along Santa Monica Boulevard. It was inaugurated in 1911 and today sports wonderful roses, cactus gardens, a lily pond, fine gravel walking paths; running a length of about two miles it gives nice green breathing to anyone on foot (rather fewer in LA than one might expect).

In the late 1920s it was decided to erect a fountain at the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards. Partly funded by the active Beverly Hills Women's Club, its architect was Ralph Carlin Flewelling (1894-1975) and the sculptor/artist was Robert Merrell Gage (1892-1981). Although an entrepreneur and very successful archictect, Flewelling hailed from intellectual, philosophical stock; his father Ralph Tyler Flewelling (1871-1960) was a foremost 'personalist' philosopher. In many ways 'personalism' was a typically American philosophy. Gage, too, was solidly entrenched in the American tradition; his teacher was Gutzom Borglum, the sculptor - of wonderful name! - of Mount Rushmore. Gage's themes are typically 'strong' American (e.g. pioneer history, such as that of the Capitol buidling of Kansas).

These two men collaborated on this marvellous 'historical' fountain of which the centrepiece is a praying Tongva, perhaps giving thanks for fertility and abundance. It is said that the model for him was Gradin Newsom, who was himself part Cherokee. The fountain has the name "The Electric Fountain" because of its wonderful, changing illuminations every 8 minutes or so.

It is very worthwhile to linger at this pleasant place: there is a nice frieze illustrating Californian history from colonial to modern times; there are exquisite terra-cotta tiles in the American 'art deco' mode, showing 'strong' Americans. As Michelin would say: worth a detour!

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Taken on March 28, 2008