Chicago Has Plenty of Fabulous Water Fountains to Explore
Chicago’s beauty lies in its proximity to water. Our Second City nestles along the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan with the Chicago River winding throughout downtown and branching up north and down south.
Another liquid treasure our city has is its sparkling water fountains. Our city is home to many diverse, artistic, fascinating and architecturally and historically important water fountains.
Award-winning journalist and author Greg Borzo and photographer Julia Thiel have put together an amazing new picture book called Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains that captures many of our fabulous fountains and the fascinating history that surrounds them. The book highlights over one hundred outdoor public fountains along with amusing and even surprising stories about these gems.
“Chicago is a place with water, water, everywhere: its lakefront, its rivers – and its fountains!”
This is the perfect book to explore Chicago’s bubbling treasures, preferably on a bike. My son and I have biked quite a bit this summer and we’ve seen some of these treasures, beginning with The Gateway Plaza Fountain at Lincoln and Peterson on the Northside, the culmination of our bike ride along the river. Legion Park is a memorial to the World War I veterans, and the site once housed the Riverside Motel, a one-time haven for prostitutes and drug dealers, Borzo writes. More importantly, the gurgling water and picturesque fountain give us time to rest, think and talk each time we stop – the essence of a fountain with H2O.
“Fountains are playful and fantastical, utilitarian and sublime. Public fountains are truly democratic, inviting people from everywhere and anywhere to come, meet, talk, play, learn, reflect, wish, and find repose in the eternal sight and sound of splashing water,” the introduction reads.
Borzo – who has written books about the L trains, biking in Chicago and our cable cars – puts together an interesting story about the history of our fountains, beginning with the first water fountains where not only people, but horses came to drink. One of those is still standing downtown around the corner from the Hancock building.
On our bike ride toward the lake, we stopped at a remarkable fountain called the Children’s Fountain which was installed in 2005 in front of the Chicago History Museum at North and Clark.. I was then able to tell my son the interesting history behind this fountain that
was selected by Mayor Jane Byrne and installed at Wacker and Wabash in 1982. Byrne told the designer to install cranes rather than griffins because she just had a fight with a guy named Griffin. Then Mayor Richard M. Daley removed the twenty-foot-tall fountain in 2000 during the construction of Wacker Drive and put the piece in storage until it reappeared five years later further north. Borzo wrote that it was a slap at Byrne who loved the fou
ntain, and trust me, it is lovely! Removing plaques and statutes political rivals installed is a tactic I’ve seen played out even in the schools!
Another fabulous masterpiece is the Fountain of the Great Lakes, one of Chicago’s premier sculpture Lorado Taft’s masterpieces, which adorns the South Garden of the Art Institute. Each of the five maidens holds a shell that represents one of the Great Lakes. The 1906 masterpiece was inspired by the Greek myth of Danaides, in which 49 sisters kills their husbands on their wedding night, and as punishment, the sisters were condemned for eternity to the futile task of transporting water in vessels full of holes. The top maiden is Lake Superior dumping water downward, mirroring the water route of our Great Lakes, with the last maiden representing Lake Ontario, from which water flows toward the ocean. Aaron Montgomery – the founder of Montgomery’s Wards and this city’s water hero who spearheaded the fight against development along the lakefront – delayed placement of Taft’s sculpture. It then became a hit, Borzo writes in his chapter entitled Iconic Fountains, although one critic said the “placid depiction of the Great Lakes did not match the Great Lakes that Chicago knew, lakes that could sink ships,” and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union objected to the three bare-breasted maidens. Mayor Carter Harrison – considered a progressive politician who oversaw the Haymarket Riots – gave a thumbs up to the fountain.
Another iconic fountain that we are all familiar with is the Crown Fountain, a kind of modern antithesis of the sprouting landmark treasure Buckingham Fountain. This tourist treasure never shuts down – many like Buckingham are idle during the winter – and sits in the middle of Millennium Park where two 50-foot-tall glass-brick to
wers projecting the faces of one thousand everyday Chicagoans, facing off at opposite ends of a 232-foot-long quarter-inch deep pool paved with black granite. Every five minutes, the lips on the two faces pucker, and the mouth squirts a stream of water to the delight of kids. This modern wonder designed by Spanish sculptur Jaume Plensa cost a staggering $17 million, 750 percent over the amount originally budgeted by Mayor Daley in 1997. “Indeed, the scale and prominence of the faces on the towers make all Chicagoans look and feel majestic. Plensa has declined lucrative offers to approve a similar fountain in another city.”
One fountain that stands out for its unusualness is the Man with Fish, which Borzo calls one of Chicago’s most playful fountains. The fountain that was installed in 2001 in front of the Shedd Aquarium features a sixteen-foot-tall man hugging an even bigger fish – “water spouts out of the fish’s mouth, pouring over the fish and the man into a thirty-five-foot-diameter, dome-shaped pool exquisitely inlaid with mosaics depicting aquatic creatures.” The fountain became a hit – although some have called it bizarre – and the Shedd president said it speaks to humankind’s stewardship of the aquatic world.
But not all fountains have been a success. Fountains are not easy to maintain and many have fallen into disrepair. Mayor Daley went on a fountain-building spree perhaps to water his legacy, upsetting some communities who felt they didn’t have a voice in what the city quickly put up in their neighborhoods. The Courtland Street Fountain, which Borzo calls the “poster child for troubled waters,” was poorly located in an industrial zone near Clybourn Avenue, and is not maintained nor in operation. In the chapter Forgotten Fountains – the Nymph Fountain, a class project of Art Institute students in 1899, surprised many people when it appeared overnight along Michigan Avenue, with eight larger-than-life nude female figures in sensuous poses. Borozo writes that it was the talk of the town but was vandalized and removed after only a few months.
Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains is a special book that I would recommend to purchase as a gift for the holidays, and then enjoy it during the summer, especially when biking throughout the city where there are so many amazing water fountains on the Northside, Southside and Downtown. At Gregborzo.com you can also download a companion map to our city’s fabulous fountains and really explore the wonders of our beautiful aquatic city.
All photos credit: Julia Thiel