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The Buckingham Fountain Springs to Life

The Buckingham Fountain's 86th season begins, as water sprays from the now active fountain. (Photo by Madeline Reynolds)
The Buckingham Fountain‘s 86th season begins, as water sprays from the now active fountain. (Photo by Madeline Reynolds) For slideshow, click here.

In a rite of a spring, the world’s largest fountain, the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain in Grant Park, opened today for its 86th season under sunny skies.

A little girl wearing a red jacket pulled a fake level connected to a box, and jets of water of slowly started to shoot into the air, followed by a large spurt in the middle that sent droplets of water across the crowd standing closest to the basin.

Inspired by the “Bassin de Latone” Fountain at the Palace of Versailles, the Buckingham is known as the “front door to Chicago’s front yard.” The fountain measures 85 meters and 280 feet in diameter. It also features 134 jets powered by three different pumps. As a representation of Lake Michigan, it contains four pairs of Art Deco style sea horses that symbolize the four states that border Lake Michigan’s shorelines.


“It’s just a really beautiful landmark,” said Janet Heim, a newspaper reporter from Maryland visiting Chicago. “I just can’t imagine Chicago without it.”

Becky Forth, a retiree from Iowa, said: “Bring it on.”

Nichole and Pam Gambosi, taking photos together in front of the fountain, “lucked out” as they were just in time to see the fountain in action. “It’s an icon of Chicago. I love coming to the fountain,” Nicole Gambosi said. “It’s our first time to see it turned on,” Pam Gambosi said. They complimented the event and the “gorgeous weather.”

The 86th season also marked the 75th anniversary of the March of Dimes, and the 30th anniversary of their relationship with Kmart. “The March of Dimes champions mom and babies in local communities and all across the nation,” said Deidra Merriweather, senior vice president of Kmart and a board member for the March of Dimes. “Kmart’s relationship with the March of Dimes goes beyond fundraising. It is truly a person commitment and a personal involvement.”

Bob Crookston, a board member of the March of Dimes, said the fountain is a “beacon of beautiful Chicago summer weather, not only spring.”

“And that starts today, right?” he said as a crisp breeze blew. “We’re thrilled to be the first charitable organization to have the privilege of turning on the water jets for the Buckingham Fountain.”

The fountain runs for 20 minutes every hour. It starts small, but as more jets are activated and the basins fill, the central jet pushes water to a height of 150 feet. The night displays even include music and a computerized choreography of color and spotlights. The fountain, during its most impressive displays, circuits through more than 15,000 gallons of water a minute. In total, the fountain’s water is 1.5 million gallons.

The Buckingham Fountain officially opened to the public on May 26, 1927. Kate Buckingham donated the fountain to the city. The fountain is a memorial to her brother, Clarence, a former director of the Art Institute. The fountain was operated manually, until 1980, with two engineers each taking 12-hour shifts. The evening light show for the fountain was first automated in 1968.

In 1994 the fountain went under a $2.8 million project to repair basin leaks caused by Chicago’s rough winters. It was closed again, in 2008,to fix plumbing issues and add flash. This flourish was meant to attract more visitors.

Madeline Reynolds, Glenn Minnis, and Ashli Teil contributed to this story.

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