Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Fountain of the Great Lakes--Happy Birthday!

Lorado Taft's Fountain of the Great Lakes (JWB, 2012)

With a touch of a button on this very day 99 years ago, a little girl, the daughter of sculptor Lorado Taft, started water flowing from shell to shell in The Fountain of the Great Lakes, a sculpture that can be seen today in front of the west wall of the Ferguson Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lorado Taft was born in Elmwood, Illinois on April 20, 1860.   He received his degree from the University of Illinois in 1879, stayed for another year to earn his Master’s degree and then attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, the most prestigious school for design in the world, until 1883.

The sculptor opened his studio in Chicago in January of 1886 and began his career as an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago that same year.  He went on to teach at both the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.  He also worked as part of a team of sculptors assembling the vast collection of sculptural work at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (JWB, 2012)
As Timothy Garvey wrote in his book Public Sculptor:  Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago, “To a public knowing and therefore appreciating only portraits and soldier statues, he resolved to bring a new sensitivity to ideal sculpture; to a city and region convinced that art of high quality was necessarily produced elsewhere, he determined to prove the ability of local talent.” [Garvey. Public Sculptor:  Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. University of Illinois Press, 1988.]

He spent his life trying to achieve that grand vision.  At the age of 76, Lorado Taft died at his home at 6016 North Ingleside, just off the Midway Plaisance, on October 30, 1936.    

Lake Superior begins the natural flow of the Great Lakes (JWB, 2012)
The Fountain of the Great Lakes had its birth in a casual conversation between two Chicago giants as Lorado Taft and Daniel Burnham rode to their homes in Evanston on a commuter train shortly after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In his book on Lorado Taft, Garvey wrote, “Taft recalled, Burnham originally poses his advice as a gentle scolding.  Claiming sculptors often overlooked wonderful subjects at their own doorsteps, the architect cited the example of the lake beside them as a rich American theme a sculptor might do well to consider.”

Working on other commissions and teaching almost continuously, Lorado Taft was unable to produce a model for the lake fountain until 1906 when a full-scale version was provided for public display.  The date of 1906 is a significant one, too, because it came just a year after Benjamin Franklin Ferguson left one million dollars in trust to the Art Institute of Chicago which was to be used “entirely and exclusively . . . under the direction of the Board of Trustees in the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments, in the whole or in the part of stone, granite, or bronze, in the parks, along the boulevards or in other public places within the city of Chicago, Illinois, commemorating worthy men or women of America or important events in American history.” 
Note the full title of the piece, a homage to two great men who made the work happen (JWB, 2012)
Benjamin Ferguson was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania in 1839 and was among that generation of adventurers who came to Chicago just prior to the fire in 1871 and made their fortune.  Ferguson worked exclusively in lumber and made a fortune doing so . . . enough so that after traveling in Europe where he was impressed with the public sculpture, he vowed to bring to Chicago that same sensitivity to public art.

Some 20 sculptures in Chicago have been funded by the Ferguson fund. They include such works as the sculptures on the south pylons (Defense and Regeneration) of the DuSable Bridge carrying Michigan Avenue across the Chicago River, Ivan Mestrovic's Bowman and Spearman, just east of Michigan Avenue on Congress, and Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy at the University of Chicago. 

In the Fountain of the Great Lakes Lorado Taft fashioned a series of female figures, executed in bronze, symbolizing the general flow of the great lakes system with Lake Superior at the top which, along with Lake Michigan, empties into a shell-like container held by Lake Huron.  The stream continues onto Lake Erie, which passes the stream onto Lake Ontario.

The "wistful" Lake Ontario, yielding her charge to the St. Lawrence (JWB, 2012)
In his remarks at the formal opening of the fountain 99 years ago, the sculptor paid particular attention to the maiden representing Lake Ontario, observing that as the waters of the Great Lakes “escape from her basin and hasten into the unknown, she reaches wistfully after them as though questioning whether she has been neglectful of her charge.” [Dedication of the Ferguson Fountain of the Great Lakes]

Writing just days later the scholar, critic, and patron of the arts, Harriet Monroe, observed, “[Lorado Taft] has made a truly sculptural work, which takes with a certain authority one of the proudest sites ever granted to a sculptor, adorning the fine south fa├žade of the institute, and dominating the open space of the park.  And he has expressed with force and beauty and a fine plan of enthusiasm his magnificent subject.  The ultimate rank of his monument among the world’s treasures only the verdict of time can decide.”   

The original location of the fountain.  Photo taken sometime after 1916 since Gunsaulus Hall,
spanning the Illinois Central tracks to the rear is clearly finished. (Google Image)
When water first began to flow from lake to lake back on September 9, 1913,  the statue faced south and sat on the south side of the original Art Institute building, finished 20 years before.  After standing for nearly 50 years in that location the sculptural work was moved so that it now faces west from its position in front of the 1962 Morton Wing of the Art Institute.

The move was not without controversy.  The Chicago Heritage Committee objected to the Art Institute “pushing our statues around.”   The committee, which came into being in 1957 in the fight to save Robie House on the city’s south side, was made up of Chicagoans from all walks of life, including Alderman Leon Despres of the Fifth Ward.

Feeding pigeons at the original site of the fountain . . .
Note Solon S. Beman's Pullman Building across the street (Google Image)
The committee held that the Ferguson fund, which according to the original will of the generous lumber man was to be used for “erection and maintenance of statuary and monuments” had been twisted over the years to suit the needs of the Art Institute.  For one thing the 1959 Ferguson Wing of the museum on its north side used $1,600,000 from the fund to construct the $2,300,000 addition.

The head of the group, a teacher at Crane Junior College, Thomas Stauffer, said, “The legend on the back of the Fountain of the Great Lakes statue, beneath the bust of Ferguson says his ‘fund must be used for erecting and maintaining enduring statuary and monuments’—not for playing shuffleboard with them.”

Interestingly enough, the placement of the statue in its new location in 1963 has the piece so close to the west wall of the Morton Wing that no one can even see the back of the thing, a nice, practical way of solving the problem that Mr. Stauffer pointed out.

The contemporary setting for the Fountain of the Great Lakes, looking east toward
the Morton Wing of the Art Institute (JWB, 2012)
The great sculpture sits in a lovely urban garden completed between 1962 and 1967, the result of a collaboration between two great designers, architect Harry Weese and landscape architect Dan Kiley.  On the west side of the space honey locusts and ground cover provide a transitional entrance to this escape from the city.

The central plaza is recessed 18 inches and holds a rectangular pool leading one's eyes to the great fountain to the east.  On either side of the pool cockspur hawthorn trees provide a canopy over the entire plaza. 

On a sunny, summer’s day, with the water of Lorado Taft’s fountain splashing in the background, I don’t think there is a better place in the city to read a book and eat a take-away lunch.


CockSearch2009 said...
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Anonymous said...

One of my favorite gardens in our whole green city. I love the way the thorn trees and the sunken level and the crunchy gravel make you feel protected and a long way from Michigan Avenue. I went to school in the area and loved to lunch here. And it was, back when, a great place to sneak a smoke during a concert at Orchestra Hall.

black hermes birkin said...

Just wanted to drop a comment and say I am new to your blog and really like what I am reading.