Majestic, or pretentious?
Hideous, or soothing?
All have been used to describe a couple of artsy downtown Modesto landmarks that stirred emotion, not to mention letters to the editor, when they came to Tenth Street Plaza a decade ago.
Some scoffed at the 110-foot Brenden Theatres tower when it went up in April 1999, calling it an extravagant, out-of-place nod to owner John Brenden's ego. Many more made fun of the chunky, tax-funded water feature a stone's throw away, whose 10th birthday arrives in a couple of weeks.
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Hardly anyone talks about the tower anymore, a spot poll suggests. Public ridicule of the water feature has had more staying power, though several passersby recently found little bad to say.
Perhaps both have become accepted elements to that corner of the downtown streetscape, some conclude.
"I don't even notice it. You walk around it, like you would a piece of furniture," said Dave Romano, whose third-floor private civil engineering office window overlooks the fountain that so many loved to hate 10 years ago.
At the time, leaders were looking for a novel attraction that would grace their new red-brick plaza, just outside the seven-level Tenth Street Place building that joined Modesto and Stanislaus County headquarters.
Venice artists Barbara McCarren and Jud Fine fashioned the fountain in the shape and topography of Stanislaus County, with bronzed Diablo Range hills rolling on one side. On the other, water flows from granite Sierra Nevada foothills to the valley's fields and drips to a basin below.
Even before its installation, people jeered at the price: $558,400, including plumbing.
"It squats, like some hideous, misshapen toad, right at the base of our governmental mecca, a continuing reminder of opportunity squandered and money wasted," wrote John Michael Flint in a Bee community column.
So much controversy erupted that leaders asked how much it would cost to get rid of it. The answer: $90,000.
But every now and then, the water feature resurfaces, often in derision. A year ago, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini told an official from Riverbank, which had installed a water feature at the city's gateway, that the county would have offered its much-maligned plaza fountain for free.
"We wouldn't have taken it," quipped Tim Ogden, the city's economic development director, in reply.
"It's such an ugly atrocity, when we could have had something nice for half the cost," DeMartini said in a recent interview. "It's typical of government art: it's ugly, overpriced and detracts from the plaza."
Tim Fisher, a retired architect who was on the City Council when the plaza was built, said he favored a less ugly, less pricy project offered by another artist. But the Public Art Committee stuck with results of a public survey.
Jeff Grover was elected to the county Board of Supervisors two years after its installation, he is quick to point out. However, "I don't find it nearly as objectionable as some people do," he said.
If not exactly graceful, the water feature "certainly is an artistic representation of the area we live in," Grover added.
Friday afternoon, several children exiting the movie theater ran to water's edge, thrust in tiny hands and giggled.
Esmeralda Villalobos stopped to read its commemorative plaque while waiting for her husband as their 6-year-old daughter, Brianna, joined the kids. When he caught up, his wife pointed out features in the water and they stood for a moment, taking it in.
"Usually we're running to make it to the movies on time," Villalobos said.
"Just hearing it, you relax," said Peter Villalobos.
A few feet away, al fresco diners chowed under sun umbrellas outside Fuzio Universal Bistro. Richard Parenti said the water feature doesn't hold a candle to others in places like San Francisco.
"I appreciate art, and this, I don't appreciate that much," he said. "But to sit and listen is nice. The sound is soothing."
Erica Billings asked her 7-year-old, Lucy Hollifield, not to touch the water on their way to pay a bill in the government office. "God knows what's in there," Billings said. Lucy was disappointed when the water wasn't flowing a couple of weeks before, she said.
Flint still thinks the water feature is ugly and was an appalling waste of public money. At least the tower was privately funded and its business continues to generate revenue, he said.
"It's part of the background," Flint conceded. "It's like having a radio on. You pay attention at first, then after a while it becomes white noise."