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Ask Chicagoist: Buckingham Fountain's Water Supply?

By Sarah in Miscellaneous on Sep 28, 2005 2:30AM

buckfount.jpgDear Ask Chicagoist,
I once heard that the water shooting out of Buckingham Fountain is actually pumped in from out of state... maybe even from Georgia or something like that? Is this true? And, if so, why pump water in from elsewhere when the lake is so close?

Walter Waters

At first we thought you were putting that Third L in "gullible," to be sure! But we found that, in addition to the Charming Moment in Philanthropic History that is the story of this lovely city landmark (see below), what you probably heard (and perhaps misunderstood, dear Walter!) is this: the original computer that actually turned the fountain on and off was located in sunny Atlanta, GA. That's right. Home of Coca-Cola and Jimmy Carter. And a secret locus of power for decorative fountains! But they've since moved it here to the Windy City.

Here's what we found out:
Kate Buckingham, fancy philanthropy lady about whom it has been difficult to find much information, dedicated the structure to the people of Chicago in 1927 in memory of her late brother, Clarence. He had been the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Nice work, Clarence!

At the time of the big gift, Kate also established a $300,000 trust fund to cover the costs of running the massive and complicated son-et-lumiere spectacle. $300grand doesn't sound like much money to us, maybe enough for like 3 tanks of gasoline or a few pieces from the Prada fall collection, but under the watchful eye of the Art Institute of Chicago, that money has been enough to support the Park District's TLC of this important landmark. Thanks again, Art Institute!

Intrigued by this odd gift, we poked around for more information on Kate B. Alls we were able to find out is that she 'traveled in Europe' a lot, and that when she gave the money for the fountain, she was going for a 'soft moonlight' vibe. Apparently she spent a lot of time with the designer (Edward H. Bennett) to get that moonlight effect just right. Being suspicious, and just emerging from our Goth Phase, we are tempted to ponder the motives of this lovely matron, who dedicated tons of cash to make a dreamy moonlit waterfountain dedicated to her dead brother. We imagine Kate was up to something. Romantic? Hm. Was she a visionary urban designer, thwarted by the obligations of her station in society? Or perhaps she was a kooky dreamer who should be the Topic For Someone's Dissertation??? You tell us, readers, you tell us.

Back to business:
--The fountain contains 1.5 million US gallons (5,700 L) of water. During a display, more than 14,000 US gallons per minute (880 L/s) is pushed through the 133 jets. (Compare that to your hot-tub, Uncle Steve!)
--(TV factoid:) The opening credits of Married... with Children include a shot of Buckingham Fountain.
--(TV factoid 2:) It was also the starting line for the 6th series of TV's Amazing Race.
--To find out all kinds of wonked-out facts about water pressure and such, check out our friends the Park District.

Chicago is a big city, filled with all these interesting people and their weird stories. That fountain must have some SIGNIFICANCE, folks! Tell us what it means TO YOU. Do tell: inspirational moments, giddy first kisses, tragic breakups, epiphanic realizations, glorious instances of urination? Chicagoist wants to know, so don't be shy.

Feeling gullible? Need some advice? Email ask(at)