Clarence F. 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 April to mid-October, depending on weather. Times are subject to change when large events take place in or around Grant Park.
While in operation, every hour on the hour for 20 minutes the Fountain produces a major water display and the center jet shoots 150 feet into the air. The initial major display begins at 9:00 a.m. and thereafter, is every hour on the hour. Beginning at dusk, every hour on the hour for 20 minutes the Fountain’s major water display is accompanied by a major light and music display. The final display of the evening begins at 10:35 p.m.
Structure and Water
The water displays are powered by three pumps:
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 134 jets in the following configurations:
36 jets point upwards from the top basin, including a central jet to produce a 150-foot geyser
34 jets at the consoles
12 jets in the upper trough that arc into the top bowl
12 jets in the inner trough that arc into the upper trough
12 jets in the lower trough that arc into the inner trough
8 jets spout from the sea horses’ mouths
20 isolated jets
The Fountain’s water capacity is 1.5 million gallons. Depending on wind conditions, major displays use approximately 14,100 gallons of water per minute conveyed through 134 jets. Water is re-circulated 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 lip of the upper basin is 25 feet above the water in the lower basin.
The underground pump room is 35 feet long, 25 feet wide and 25 feet high.
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 computer known as the Honeywell Excel-Plus is located in the Fountain’s pump house. The computer was moved here from Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1994 renovation.
The Fountain’s alarm, a system similar to a store alarm, is monitored and dispatched through Honeywell Central Station in Arlington Heights.
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 Basin at Versailles, the structure is composed of 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 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.
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