Buckingham Fountain, the centerpiece of Grant Park, is one of the most spectacular free landmarks and beautiful historic places in Chicago. It’s also one of the largest fountains in the world.
With its basin lined with pink Georgian marble and its tiers encircled by seahorses and giant fish it will take your breath away. It welcomes everyone to Grant Park, otherwise known as Chicago’s Front Yard.
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Buckingham Fountain History
The Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain, as it’s officially known, opened to the public in May 1927 as a gift from philanthropist Kate Buckingham in honor of her brother. On August 26 of that year it was officially dedicated and the audience of 50,000 was treated to a performance of “Pomp and Circumstance” conducted by John Philip Sousa himself.
The fountain, with its ornate Rococo style and wedding cake-like tiers, was inspired by the Latona Basin in Versailles. Chicago architect Edward Bennett, the man behind Wacker Drive and the Michigan Avenue Bridge, was joined by engineer Jacques Lambert and sculptor Marcel Loyau to create this impressive memorial. Loyau was awarded the Prix National at the 1927 Paris Salon for his efforts.
Underneath the massive structure are tunnels that house the mechanisms that operate the fountain. For much of its history two men worked twelve hour daily shifts to keep the fountain going and the evening light show entertaining. In 1968 the lights were automated and in 1980 the whole operation was turned over to computers.
The contract for building the Buckingham Fountain was awarded in 1925, soon after architect Edward Bennett and donor Kate Buckingham returned from a trip to Europe where they met with the artist Marcel Loyau who created sculptural elements. Chicago History Museum, DN-0081336, ca. 1925.
Although the fountain was inspired by a French basin, Buckingham Fountain has its design firmly rooted in Chicago. The water itself, all 1.5 million gallons of it, represents Lake Michigan. The seahorses symbolize Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the states that surround the lake.
When To Visit
Clarence Buckingham Fountain is impressive any time of year, but it’s most enchanting when it’s in operation. The Chicago Park District turns the fountain on once the weather warms up. The fountain is turned on every May and through October you’ll be treated to hourly water shows. Occurring on the hour, these twenty minute displays feature a geyser that shoots 150 feet into the air.
Buckingham Fountain at night is when it really shines, since the water display is accompanied by lights and music. The final display is at 10:35pm.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for hotels near Buckingham Fountain, we’ve created a guide to places to stay near Grant Park.
Getting to Buckingham Fountain
The fountain is located in the heart of Grant Park at Columbus Drive and Congress Parkway and west of Lake Shore Drive.
With its location in downtown Chicago, Millennium Park is easily accessible via public transportation, whether you’re taking a bus, a train, or Metra. The Metra electric line runs under nearby Millennium Park with a station at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. Parking is also available at the Millennium Park Garage. If you prefer to bike you can park your cycle at the McDonald’s Cycle Center.
While you’re there, explore! Just across Lake Shore Drive is Chicago’s lakefront path and Navy Pier is just a short walk.
The Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain is a dazzling monument to a sister’s love and an appropriately theatrical entrance to this great city.