Friday, December 7, 2018

Clarence Buckingham and his Memorial Fountain in Chicago's Grant Park.

Clarence Buckingham was born on November 2, 1854, in Zanesville, Ohio, the eldest of three children born to Ebenezer and Lucy (Sturges) Buckingham. The family moved to Chicago when Clarence was a young boy, and it was from here his father rapidly expanded his successful business by building and operating grain elevators. 

The family's Northside home was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and in 1875 they moved into their new home at 2036 S. Prairie Avenue. The new residence housed a valuable collection of art, which in time became one of the finest private collections in the city. An article in the Chicago Tribune dated May 6, 1883, entitled "Some of the Notable Pictures in the Collection of Mr. E. Buckingham, of This City," described in detail a number of the works, many of which were watercolors. The Buckinghams instilled a love and appreciation of art in their three children, which would have a profound effect on those children later in life.

Ebenezer Buckingham died in 1912, leaving a $4 million estate to his three unmarried children (his wife had been killed in 1889). By that time, Clarence had become a successful businessman in his own right. Starting in his father's company, he became a broker and a director of the Corn Exchange National Bank and the Illinois Trust and Savings Company. He also served as president of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company and was involved in insurance, steel, and real estate. 

Clarence Buckingham's strong interest in art blossomed in the 1890s when he began assembling a collection of Japanese woodblock prints of exceptional quality and range, assisted by Art Institute curator Frederick W. Gookin and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

A director of the Art Institute for more than a decade, he frequently loaned items from his personal collection for exhibition. He also purchased and gave artwork directly to the Art Institute.

Buckingham died on August 28, 1913, one week after returning to Chicago from his new summer residence at Lennox, Massachusetts. He had been in good health within a few weeks of his death, so his sudden demise at 58 shocked his family and friends. He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Zanesville, Ohio.

In 1914, his sister Kate Sturges Buckingham loaned his entire art collection to the Art Institute. She continued to acquire additional works, and in 1925 she formally gave the prints to the museum, along with an endowment to maintain and expand the collection. The Clarence Buckingham Collection originally contained about 2,500 works and has grown through purchases and gifts to more than 16,000. (It was also in 1925 that Kate razed the old family home on Prairie Avenue when she relocated to a spacious apartment on Lakeview Avenue on the Northside.)

The lasting legacy of Clarence Buckingham, of course, is the fountain that bears his name in Grant Park. Officially called the "Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain," the project was announced in January 1924, when the South Park board of commissioners voted to accept the gift, donated to the city by Kate in memory of her brother, Clarence Buckingham, and was thus constructed at the cost of $450,000. Kate also established the Buckingham Fountain Endowment Fund with an initial investment of $300,000 to pay for a maintenance fund, for a total cost of $750,000.
The design of the fountain is twice the size of that of Latona at Versailles. Architect Edward H. Bennett of the firm Bennett, Parsons, and Frost, designed the fountain and French artist Marcel Loyau produced the sculptural elements. Work commenced in August 1925 and would take two years to complete. 

James O'Donnell Bennett, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, writing about the fountain just a week after its dedication, said in part:
“In a week the Buckingham fountain has captured the imagination of the town, enlarged its aesthetic sense, and done it spiritual good. The gift is more than a memorial to Clarence Buckingham. It is an expression of the lake by which it is fed and which it extols. As such, Chicago has comprehended it and as such loves it. It is the lyric of the lake. It will never grow old or commonplace. Sunlight and shadow, mounting and waning breeze will ever renew and ever vary its spectacle and its song. It will go on forever.”
The fountain was officially dedicated on August 26, 1927. An estimated 50,000 people attended the ceremonies and watched the inaugural performance of the fountain's water jets and colored lights, set to a live performance of the "Stars and Stripes Forever" performed by John Philip Sousa's band. 
It is one of the largest fountains in the world. Built in a Rocky Rococo wedding cake style and inspired by the Latona Fountain at the Palace of Versailles, it is meant to allegorically represent Lake Michigan. It operates from April to October, with regular water shows and evening color-light shows. During the winter, the fountain is decorated with festival lights.
Many tourists and Chicagoans visit the fountain each year. The fountain operates daily from mid-April through mid-October, with the last show beginning at 10:00 pm. Water shows occur every hour on the hour and last 20 minutes. During shows, the center jet shoots up vertically to 150 feet, and night shows are choreographed with lights and music.

The fountain is constructed of Georgia pink marble and contains 1,500,000 U.S. gallons of water. During a display, more than 14,000 U.S. gallons per minute are pushed through its 193 jets. The bottom pool of the fountain is 280 ft in diameter, the lower basin is 103 ft, the middle basin is 60 ft, and the upper basin is 24 ft. The lip of the upper basin is 25 ft above the water in the lower basin.
The fountain's pumps are controlled by a Honeywell computer which was previously located in Atlanta, Georgia, until the 1994 renovation when it was moved to the pump house at the fountain. The fountain's security system is monitored from Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb.

In 1994, the fountain received a $2.8 million restoration to its three smallest basins which developed leaks due to Chicago's harsh winters.

The latest renovation project on Buckingham Fountain began in September 2008. This three-phase project modernized aging internal systems in the fountain and restored deteriorated features. Funding came from a combination of the Buckingham endowment, city and park district funds and a grant from the Lollapalooza music festival, held annually near the fountain.
Phase I was dedicated on April 3, 2009. This phase included permeable pavers to surround the fountain, which replaced the crushed stone used since the fountain was constructed. The pavers make a safer and smoother surface and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Phase II began in the winter of 2009. This phase included the demolition of the fountain table, installation of an extensive under drainage system, new landscaping, site lighting, signs, site furnishings, sewer system, selective demolition within or adjacent to the fountain's outer basin, repairs of some existing cast-in-place concrete elements and installation of new cast-in-place elements.
Phase III includes the restoration of Buckingham Fountain and fountain table, the construction of a new equipment room with selective demolition, structural construction and masonry restoration and repair, mechanical and electrical work, bronze restoration and repair and installation of site improvements and amenities.
Buckingham Fountain is often mistaken for the eastern terminus of U.S. Route 66, but it is not. The original eastern terminus was at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago in 1926. In a later alignment, the terminus was moved east two blocks to the corner of Jackson Drive and Lake Shore Drive after the latter was designated as U.S. Route 41. It remained there until the eastern terminus of Interstate 55 was completed at Lake Shore Drive. Then that also became the eastern terminus of Route 66 until I-55 completely replaced the route in Illinois, and Route 66 was decommissioned. Today, Jackson Boulevard is a one-way street heading eastbound toward Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. As a result of changing two-way streets to one-way traffic, you can come into Chicago on the original old Route 66, but you have to leave by way of Adams Street (one-way westbound). Adams Street begins at the entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Nevertheless, many people still associate Buckingham Fountain with the start of Route 66, even though it had not been built when the route opened on November 11, 1926 —. In contrast, Lorado Taft's "Fountain of the Great Lakes" in the South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has been at that intersection since 1913, actually preceded Route 66 by 13 years and Buckingham Fountain by 14 years.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Bravo! Thanks for sharing your knowledge Dr. Neil. I was unaware of the story behind the Buckingham Fountain.

  2. I love the history of Chicago even though I am not a native Chicagoan.

  3. ALWAYS enjoy learning something(s) new about our beloved Chicago!!! Thank you once again!

  4. Thank you for this wonderful article! Brings back wonderful memories.

  5. I was so happy to read this article Dr Gale! It’s always been a fabulous iconic landmark. Now I just have to find the photo of my G-GF sitting on it in the 1920-40’s. Thank you.


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