Drive south on the I-280 as it passes through Redwood City, and you just may catch a glimpse of a small Grecian-looking temple located near the side of the road below. The structure looks remarkably out of place against the surrounding grasslands rimmed by coastal mountains.This is the Pulgas Water Temple (“pulgas” means “fleas” in Spanish—which the early explorers encountered in droves in this area) and it has been standing on this spot since 1934. The temple is a charming reminder of San Francisco’s quest for water during the early 20thcentury.
The Pulgas Water Temple was erected to mark the western terminus of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, a major project built to carry potable water from the Sierra Nevadas to the city and its neighboring areas. The San Francisco Water Department commissioned local architect William Merchant to design the temple—its Beaux Arts styling a nod to the Greeks and Romans, whose engineering methods were used to create the new water system. The temple has fluted columns in a circle topped by a large masonry ring bearing the biblical inscription “I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people.” It is framed by a grassy lawn and blue reflecting pool—and, until 2004, you could actually view the water entering the temple basin, cascading down a C-shaped waterfall before flowing out to the nearby Crystal Springs reservoir.
Forty-five miles away, in the small agricultural town of Sunol, stands another circular water temple. This one was erected in 1910 over the spot where three subterranean water sources converge.
The Sunol Water Temple was commissioned by William Bowers Bourn, the fabulously rich owner of California’s Empire gold mine. He was a major stockholder in the Spring Valley Water Company, which had a virtual monopoly on San Francisco’s drinking water supply. Bourn hired local architect Willis Polk to do the work, and when it was finished the Sunol Water Temple featured twelve Corinthian columns topped by a wood and tile roof. Painted wood panels beneath the tile roof depicted Indian maidens carrying water vessels.
In the bottom of the temple, the converging waters poured into a white tiled cistern before flowing into the Niles Aqueduct for distribution. The Sunol Water Temple also had a biblical inscription, “I will make the wilderness a pool of water and the dry lands springs of water.”
I have been told that there are only three water temples in the United States—how lucky that the Bay area can claim two of them!
Today they no longer function as part of the active water supply system, but both have been preserved to pleasantly surprise those who stumble across their paths.
Want to visit the temples? Here are the details.