At 9:30 each weekday morning, the fountain in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden awakens. Eight fingers of water rise, slowly arching upward--barely shishing at first, then building to the soothing sound of a waterfall by the 10 a.m. opening.

People come to the garden to gawk at the artwork planted throughout the six acres. They pose for photos in front of the huge rabbit called "Thinker on a Rock." They plop down to rest on the polished granite benches that make up "Six-Part Seating."

But the water beckons. And most of them end up at the fountain, where they soak feet, dip hands or just stare at the dance of the H20.

"Look, Mommy! It looks like McDonald's!" Sarah Abram, 5, shrilled yesterday as the eight synchronized spouts formed perfect arches under the golden sun.

The Ridout family sat around the rim of the fountain, too, paying its second visit this drought-plagued summer.

"The water brought us back," said Lisa Ridout, flanked by her son, 4, a niece, 10, and a cousin, 14. Her oldest child, 15-year-old Laycie, wouldn't budge from a bench in the shade of a tree.

"The water is nice, but it's hot out here. They need to put all of this under a tent," Laycie muttered.

Occasionally a visitor is overzealous about getting cool and has to be escorted by a guard from the center of the fountain pool.

"We understand people can't resist putting their feet in," said Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery. But rules are rules. No wading. No standing.

Yesterday, people were content to sit and stare at the water until their faces bore the look of detachment: glossy, unfocusing eyes and loose chins. Their bodies were clearly present, but their minds were lapping at the surf on some distant sandy beach or tasting salty air from the helm of a sailboat on the bay.

One man stripped off his T-shirt, rolled up his jeans, sat on the lip of the pool and dangled his legs in the cool water.

A group of 50 children--ages 5 to 8--stopped by to eat their bag lunches before continuing on their field trip. Teacher Regina Swann issued warnings: "No, you can't put your feet in the water. . . . No splashing! No hands in the water!"

By the time she blew her whistle to signal it was time to go, there were at least two dozen drenched hands, one pair of soaked shoes and two apples dipped in water.

Gillian Heltai, 15, spent hours fountain-side yesterday, reading "The Grapes of Wrath," her summer homework.

"It's a nice place to read," said the Fairfax teenager, waiting to have lunch with her mother, who works nearby. "I have trouble reading when it's noisy, but it's never very loud here because of the water."

Since the garden opened in May, 533,450 people have visited, Ziska said. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

CAPTION: Brian Mizoguchi, left, Jackie Stephenson and James Mizoguchi check out the giant typewriter eraser in the National Gallery of Art's new Sculpture Garden.