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Home > Water Fountain Information > Chicago's Water Fountain of the Great Lakes

Chicago's Water Fountain of the Great Lakes

Monumental Bronze Water Fountain Shows Flow of Great Lakes in Chicago

At 111 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago lies the Art Institute of Chicago, and one of Loredo Taft’s most famous sculptural works, the Fountain of the Great Lakes, a bronze water fountain sculpture representing the movement of the water of the Great Lakes system. Starting in Lake Superior, and flowing through to Lake Michigan, then Lake Huron, to Lake Erie, and then through Lake Ontario into the ocean via the St Lawrence River, the five lakes are represented by five female figures in flowing robes, with Superior at the top holding an urn from which her waters flow downward to the other four figures, each holding a shell-shaped basin. The waters in the fountain overflow from each basin to the next, until reaching a lower fountain pool representing the St Lawrence River, and below that lies a larger pool, the waters of the ocean into which the river empties.

The fountain was originally placed facing south, until 1963 when it was placed in its current location, facing west at the Art Institute’s Morton Wing. The gardens surrounding the fountain, whose back panel lies up against the wall of the Institute, were designed by the notable modernist landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley.

Completed in 1913, the idea for the water fountain was borne from a comment by Daniel Burnham, regarding the sculptors commissioned to create works for the fairgrounds for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the largest World’s Fair to date, and whose construction was overseen by Burnham’s architectural firm. Burnham’s complaint was that the sculptors failed to create any works or ornamentation for the World’s Exposition that represented the natural resources of the west, in particular the Great Lakes. Taft responded to the powerful designer’s complaint with his idea, and the water fountain was then commissioned by Benjamin F. Ferguson, an art lover and Chicago lumber merchant whose enduring legacy was a trust for the city of Chicago for, “The erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments, in whole or in part of stone, granite or bronze in the parks, along the boulevards or in other public places.” A relief sculpture of Ferguson lies on the rear panel of the water fountain, which has been hidden from view since the fountain’s relocation.

The construction of the fairgrounds faced enormous financial and organizational obstacles and a very tight time frame for opening. When Taft was faced with pressure for completion of works commissioned for the Horticultural Building of the Exposition, Burnham told him, “Hire anyone, even white rabbits if they’ll do the work.” Taft employed a group of female sculptors, a rare move for the times, who became famously known as “The White Rabbits”. The success of the Exposition and popularity of the women’s sculptural works led to national acceptance of women sculptors.

Loredo Taft is most famous for his fountains, which include not only the Fountain of the Great Lakes, but also the Fountain of Time in Chicago, the Columbus Fountain in Washington DC, and the Thatcher Memorial Fountain in Denver. Taft also created the famous Black Hawk statue called The Eternal Indian, which towers 125 feet overlooking the city of Oregon, Illinois.

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Chicago's Water Fountain of the Great Lakes