The Mermaids Win

Being surrounded on three sides by water, it is logical that San Francisco should have some hometown mermaids. In 1968, a mermaid named “Andrea” snuck in to her permanent home in the middle of the fountain in the plaza at Ghirardelli Square. The operation was conducted under the cover of darkness. Her co-conspirators included her creator, the sculptor Ruth Asawa.

Here is a short clip that a tourist took of Ghirardelli Plaza a little more than a month ago. Watch for Andrea and her sea friends in the middle of the fountain as it looks today:

Ghirardelli Square was the original site for Domingo Ghirardelli’s chocolate factory that opened in 1852. By 1964, the space was re-imagined and opened as a specialty shopping complex. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin planned and installed the outdoor spaces and had a fountain built, waiting for a piece of sculpture to complete the design.

Artist Asawa ( ) was commissioned to create that art piece. She cast a bronze sculpture of Andrea, with another mermaid cuddling her “mer-baby,” surrounded by sea turtles and frogs. Of course, the mermaids were in their pure form, technically naked. The reason Asawa and her friends installed the sculpture in the middle of the night on March 18, 1968, was, as Asawa explained, “to create the impression that they had always been there.”

Architect Halprin was irate. He wrote a two page attack on the sculpture, saying the mermaids and sea creatures destroyed the balance he wanted to create between modernism and Victoriana. Instead of mermaids, images that are called “representational art,” Halprin suggested “an abstraction for the fountain, a shaft of metal about 15 feet high.” As this was the late 1960s, some saw the controversy as a fight between male and female visions. Perhaps the mermaids had been seen by Halprin as a “female intrusion” into what he had designed as a male-dominated design of a public space. One woman called his office and wished Halprin, “would take your 15′ shaft of metal and go sit on it somewhere.” Public opinion sided with Asawa’s design.

Ruth Asawa died at age 87 on August 6 in her home in The City. She was a World War II Japanese internment camp survivor who learned to draw from three Walt Disney illustrators who lived in the same camp. She was a beloved and award winning artist, a wife for 59 years, a mother of six children, a grandmother of 10 and a great grandmother of four. For many years, she promoted teaching the arts in public school. In 1982, she was instrumental in the creation of the only public high school in The City devoted to the arts, then called the San Francisco School of the Arts. In 2010, the school was renamed Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Here are some media artists of the future:

And as for our hometown mermaids, Andrea and her sea friends continue to welcome visitors to Ghirardelli Square.

Best wishes,