The Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, one of the largest in the world, is located at Columbus Drive (301 East) and Congress Parkway (500 South) in Grant Park and runs from 8 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily, typically from early May through mid-October, depending on weather. Display times are subject to change during special events in Grant Park.
While in operation, the Fountain produces a major water display for 20 minutes every hour. During the major display, a center jet shoots water to a height of 150 feet into the air. Major displays begin daily at 9:00 a.m. and continue thereafter, every hour on the hour. Beginning at dusk, a spectacular light and music display accompanies the major display, beginning every hour on the hour for 20 minutes. Each evening, the final major display begins at 10:35 p.m.
Donated by Kate S. Buckingham in honor of her brother Clarence, the Buckingham Fountain is considered one of the finest ornamental fountains in America. It has been designated as a Chicago Landmark and a contributing feature within Grant Park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
An important Chicago art patron and philanthropist, Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858 – 1937) was the last member of the Buckingham family. Originally from Zanesville, Ohio, the Buckingham family made its fortune in grain elevators, real estate and steel. Kate and her brother Clarence Buckingham (1854 – 1913) were both avid art collectors and benefactors who donated valuable prints, paintings, sculptures, and objects to the Art Institute of Chicago. In the mid 1920s, Kate Buckingham decided to provide funds for a magnificent fountain in Grant Park as a memorial to her brother.
Architect Edward H. Bennett of the firm Bennett, Parsons and Frost, designed the fountain and French artist Marcel Loyau produced the sculptural elements. Architects Jacques Lambert and Clarence W. Farrier served as associates on the project. The fountain is composed of pink Georgia marble, with some granite elements, and bronze sculptures.
During the planning phases, Kate Buckingham expressed that she wanted the fountain’s lighting to emulate “soft moonlight.” According to an early Chicago Park District brochure, “though advanced in years,” Miss Buckingham “worked night after night with technicians, trying out various colors of glass and adjusting the control of electric current” to produce “blends… that pleased her— and indeed, there is a mystical aura around the lighted fountain suggesting moonlight— in fairyland.”
Structure and Water
The water displays are powered by three pumps. Pump 1 is the primary pump that keeps the fountain running throughout the day. Pumps 2 and 3 operate during the major display:
· Pump 3: 75 horsepower for 1,600 gallons of water a minute
· Pump 2: 190 horsepower for 5,500 gallons of water a minute
· Pump 1: 250 horsepower for 7,000 gallons of water a minute
The Fountain has 133 jets in the following configurations:
· 1 central jet at the top of the upper basin used for the 150-foot tall geyser
· 34 jets pointing upwards from the top basin along the inner top ring,
· 34 jets at the consoles located along the perimeter of all three basins
· Each of the three basins have 12 jets that spray an arc to the level about 8 jets spout from the sea horses' mouths
· 20 isolated jets- 4 groups of 5 spray heads
The Fountain's water capacity is 1.5 million gallons. Depending on wind conditions, major displays recirculate approximately 14,100 gallons of water per minute conveyed through 134 jets. Water is recirculated from the base pool after the basins are filled and not drawn from the outside except to replace losses from wind and evaporation.
The bottom pool of the fountain is 280 feet in diameter, the lower basin is 103 feet, the middle basin is 60 feet and the upper basin is 24 feet. The top of the upper basin stands 25 feet above the water in the lower basin.
The fountain has its original underground pump house with two levels. The control room is located on the first level, and the lower level pump room is 35 feet long, 25 feet wide. The original pumps and motors are still in operation today.
Kate Buckingham envisioned a fountain whose effect was that of "soft moonlight." She worked many nights with technicians, testing the various colors of the glass filters and currents to produce an ethereal, mystical aura.
The Fountain contains 820 lights in the following configurations:
· 16 in top bowl
· 72 in upper trough
· 204 in inner trough
· 432 in lower trough
· 24 in the isolated jets
· 60 in the sea horses
· 12 in the bulrushes
The Buckingham Fountain was manually operated from 1927 through the 1970s. The operations were first fully automated in 1980, when the Chicago Park District entered into a contract with Honeywell. The computer was located on site, but the monitoring system took place remotely, off premises. For the first several years, the monitoring system was based in the Chicago suburbs. In the mid 1980s, the monitoring system was moved to Atlanta, for several years, but then returned to suburban Chicago in 1994. The Chicago Park District upgraded the Buckingham Fountain computer in 2013 with a non-proprietary Allen-Bradley PLC System. Today, all of the automation and monitoring takes place on-site, with remote alarm monitoring and notification.
The Fountain officially opened to the public on May 26, 1927 and was dedicated on August 26, 1927. As the centerpiece of Grant Park—“Chicago’s Front Yard”, architect Edward H. Bennett (1874–1954) designed the Fountain to serve as the park’s formal focal point without obstructing the views of the Lake Michigan. Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858-1937) dedicated the structure to the people of Chicago in 1927 in memory of her late brother, Clarence, donating one million dollars for the Fountain.
Edward H. Bennett designed the monument in collaboration with French sculptor Marcel Loyau and engineer Jacques H. Lambert. Inspired by the Latona Fountain at Versailles, the structure is composed of four basins clad in elaborately carved granite and pink Georgia marble. Buckingham Fountain, however, is twice the size and re-circulates approximately three times more water than its French counterpart. Chicago’s fountain is also unique as it symbolizes Lake Michigan. Conveying the enormity of the lake, its major display uses as much as 15,000 gallons of water per minute and sprays water to a height of 150 feet from the ground. The massive lower basin features four sets of Art Deco style sea horses representing the four states that border Lake Michigan.
To create the sea-related bronze elements, sculptor Marcel Loyau studied the sea horse collection at a zoological institution in Paris. The fountain’s sculptural elements garnered Loyau the Prix National at the 1927 Paris Salon. The monument’s original design included colored lighting to emulate soft moonlight. During the dedication in August of 1927, John Philip Sousa conducted while his band played “Pomp and Circumstance” before an audience of 50,000 people.
For years, the fountain was entirely manually operated by two engineers who each worked a twelve-hour daily shift. Although the evening light show was first automated in 1968, the water continued to be manually operated until 1980, when the operations were fully computerized. From 1983 to 1994, the fountain’s computer was located in Atlanta. Today, however, it is on site and with a monitoring system in Arlington Heights, IL.
The Fountain has remained intact except for a brief theft of two carved fish heads from the fountain, weighing several pounds each. The fish heads were recovered when a salvage place was offered the pieces and the buyer thought they looked very familiar and reported them.
This iconic Fountain continues to be one of Chicago's most popular tourist attractions.