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Notes From the Field: Sunol Water Temple

When looking for picturesque picnic places in the Bay Area, one could do worse than this little classically inspired water temple in Sunol.

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

Designed between 1906 and 1910 by local architect and lover of all things classical Willis Polk, the water temple marks the place where three local water sources converge. The design is based on the famous Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, with graceful columns surrounding a central cistern, its paneled ceiling decorated with images of Indian maidens.


The beautifully ruined Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, has inspired many artists as well as several architectural structures, including the tiny 18th century Temple of Love at Versailles.(Illustration from 1748-1774, via Wikimedia)


1922 Map showing Bay Area water pipelines. The Sunol Water Temple is marked in the red area on the right. (via Wikimedia)

At one time, half of the city of San Francisco's waters passed through the Sunol Water Temple, but since the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Aquaduct in 1934, the Sunol Water Temple has no longer been an active source of the Bay Area's drinking water.

These photographs are from a recent day out exploring our local train history in nearby Niles Canyon, when fellow Team Atlas member Tre and I stopped by the temple and planted ourselves next to the columns and amongst the squirrels for a picnic lunch.

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

The temple sits at the end of a long drive, once surrounded by walnut orchards. Now just a few trees remain.

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

The top of the temple is inscribed with Biblical quotes: "I will make the wilderness a pool of water and the dry lands springs of water" and "The streams whereof shall make glad the city"

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

The cistern at the center of the temple now stands mostly empty

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

Sunol Water Temple - Atlas Obscura

The paintings of Roman-inspired Indian maidens were never completed.

When it fell out of use, it became a little forgotten, and a little dilapidated, but after restoration efforts in recent years the little temple is once again a lovely place for an afternoon visit.


SUNOL WATER TEMPLE, Sunol, California

Open weekdays from 9am-3pm. We recommend packing a picnic.

All photos by Annetta Black/Atlas Obscura

One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field Here>

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