What is the Sunol Water Temple?

10/27/23  |  Nicole Herrmann

Hidden gem in Fremont's backyard

If you’re from Niles or anywhere in the East Bay Area, you’ve probably driven through Niles Canyon and passed through Sunol without even knowing it.

Niles Canyon is the two-lane road that connects Fremont’s Niles neighborhood to the other side of the Mission Hills into Pleasanton, Livermore, and beyond.

For Fremont drivers it's one of the most traveled shortcuts east. And for those of us who have traveled through, you’ve likely seen a sign for the “Sunol Water Temple” and dismissed it as remnants of a long past religious site. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Many might not realize that there’s a Corinthian-style temple right there in tiny Sunol! Built back in 1910 by the Spring Valley Water Company designed by famous architect Willis Polk, the temple is modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy. 

The impressive structure is 60 feet high featuring 12 columns and crowned by a terra cotta tile roof. Wedge-shaped paintings adorn the ceiling. It is truly an impressive sight to see, especially in the middle of a canyon in California. We aren’t commonly known for our Italian architecture!

Not only is it a gorgeous temple, it marks the spot where three waterways enter into the Sunol Valley - making it an historically important water source, especially for the early growth of the Bay Area.  At one time it shunted water through its cistern into a channel and subsequent filtering conduits, delivering half of all the drinkable H2O needed in San Francisco.

It is usually open to the public, however it is currently closed for renovation until 2024. Until then, when you're passing the junction that connects 84 to Niles Canyon and passing Sunol Corners Market (or Cocos Frescos as we call it!), turn your attention west to catch a quick glimpse of the Sunol Water Temple entrance gates as you pass by. You’ll know it by the ornate fish sculptures at the base of the large cement gate posts.

There is much more than meets the eye in regard to the history of this amazing vestige of time gone by.