Grant Park: Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain
Completed in 1927, the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park—Chicago's "Front Yard.” For decades this site had been the subject of heated controversy. Renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham (1846–1912) planned to build the Field Museum of Natural History in this location in the center of the park. Businessman Aaron Montgomery Ward fought four Illinois State Supreme Court battles to prevent the building’s construction here in order to keep the park’s lakefront view “free and clear” of any obstructions. After Ward won his final case in late 1910, the South Park Commission did not have alternate plans for Grant Park, and the site remained unimproved for many years.
Finally, in the early 1920s, architect Edward Bennett (1874–1954), longtime associate of Burnham and co-author of his seminal Plan of Chicago, prepared new plans to complete Grant Park. Bennett envisioned a monumental fountain to serve as the park’s formal focal point without obstructing views of Lake Michigan. Philanthropist and art patron Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858–1937) agreed to donate one million dollars for the fountain, which was dedicated to her brother, philanthropist and businessman Clarence Buckingham (1854–1913).
Bennett designed the monument in collaboration with French sculptor Marcel Francois Loyau (1895–1936) and engineer Jacques H. Lambert. Inspired by the Latona Basin at Versailles, the structure comprises four basins clad in elaborately carved granite and pink Georgia marble. The 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 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 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 stationary engineers who each worked a daily twelve-hour shift. Historically, the major water displays occurred only twice a day, three times a week. These displays were so popular that they began to be offered every day in the late 1950s. The engineers’ job became even more involved at night. They used a keyboard with twenty-one electric switches that could fade, brighten, and blend colors to create numerous light effects. Although the 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 monitoring system was located in Atlanta; however, today the computer is located on site and monitoring takes place in a Chicago suburb. In 1994, the Buckingham Fountain underwent a major conservation project that addressed some of its masonry problems. Buckingham Fund of the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District cooperatively funded the project. Between 2009 and 2012 additional repairs were made including landscape improvements surrounding the monument, plumbing upgrades, and computer upgrades.
Learn more about the Fountain, including general hours, timing for the major water display throughout the day, and an accompanying light & music display at night, along with additional details about the Fountain's structure and mechanics.