The Pulgas Water Temple, a beckoning landmark next to Crystal Springs Reservoir, has everything going for it, including Corinthian columns and beautiful surrounding landscape. What it doesn’t have is water, although legend has it that the water that once flowed through the temple to the reservoir was a virtual slip and slide for daring teenager scofflaws.
In 2004, the tap was closed and water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite Valley no longer rushed under the towering temple, flowing into Crystal Springs to quench the Bay Area’s thirst. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the water system, diverted the water to a facility where chloramine disinfectant was removed. Then the water was sent on to the Peninsula reservoir.
“The outfall from that facility is located nearby, but not at the temple,” said Betsy Lauppe Rhodes, spokeswoman for the SFPUC. “There are rare occasions when operationally the system overflows” and water goes through the temple, which is just off Cañada Road in Redwood City. “But those instances are rare.”
Rumor has it that teenagers used to ride the powerful flow of water running through the temple, Lauppe Rhodes said, adding that those rumors said one youngster was killed.
“We do not have records to substantiate those reports, however. So we are unable to confirm them,” Lauppe Rhodes said.
The water formed a small waterfall in the temple, rushing about 800 feet down a canal and into the reservoir. There is now a grate over the temple’s water channel.
At least one Facebook posting said that reports of people riding the current, sort of body surfing, “was no legend.” Signed “anonymous,” the post said: “In 1974, friends rode the current out to the lake. It was not that dangerous, but a few years later someone was killed.” The Rear View Mirror is working to find details of that fatality.
On a much happier note, the temple, which is fronted by a tree-lined pool of water, is often a setting for weddings and other special events. Perched on a series of circular steps, the temple consists of a ring of fluted columns topped with a biblical quote from Isaiah: “I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert to give drink to my people.”
The Beaux Arts style structure was designed by William Merchant, a San Francisco architect trained by Bernard Maybeck, famous for designing the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a remnant of the Exposition of 1915.
Local historian John Edmonds wrote in the Journal of Local History, a publication of the Archives Committee of the Redwood City Public Library, that the name Pulgas, the Spanish word for flea, comes from the Spanish land grant called the Pulgas Grant. Crystal Springs, he wrote, was named for the San Francisco water company that developed the reservoir. In 1910, before Hetch Hetchy was constructed, the Spring Valley Water Company, a private firm, built a similar water temple in Sunol, a small rural town in Alameda County. That temple was designed by another noted San Francisco architect, Willis Polk.
On Oct. 28, 1934, dignitaries gathered at the temple to celebrate the arrival of the first Hetch Hetchy water to the Bay Area. According to the SFPUC, the temple constructed for the event was temporary. The permanent one wasn’t built until 1939. The SFPUC describes the celebration as “huge.” Andy Howse of San Bruno agrees. That, however, is about all the two agree on. Howse manages a group called “Open the SF Watershed,” which wants to open Crystal Springs land to the public. He noted that a photo of the 1934 opening event was taken “where people are not allowed to walk today.” The Pulgas Water Temple has an additional claim to fame, Howse noted. It appears in the 1991 movie “The Doors,” a film about the rock group of the same name, but the temple is easy to miss because it is a stand-in for another famous landmark, the Hollywood Bowl.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday.
Note to readers: This story has been changed to correct a mistake. It was the Spring Valley Water Company, not the Crystal Springs Water Company.