Fountain runs dry

By Sean Stillmaker

Guarded by chain link fences and surrounded by construction contractors, Buckingham Fountain, the crown jewel of Grant Park, idles as the last improvements are made for this season.

After a seven-month hiatus, the Buckingham Fountain is still scheduled to re-open on April 1, in time for the International Olympic Committee visit later that month. The fountain and plaza closed on Sept. 2, 2008, for phase one of the renovations.

Aesthetically, the fountain will not be changed, but extensive repairs are being made to its infrastructure, structural elements and Buckingham plaza.

Besides a few minor weather delays, “everything has been going along fine,” said Marta Juaniza, spokesperson for the Chicago Park District.

“The plaza was in poor shape, the fountain’s basin was leaking, the plumbing was leaking and the infrastructure was decaying,” said Bob O’Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy.

The fountain first opened in 1927, but only a handful of minor repairs have been administered since, he said.

The renovation is split into two phases. The first phase consists of repairs to the fountain’s sewer lines, utilities and revamping of the plaza’s landscape.

Plumbing and sewer repairs were the two items completed during phase one. The fountain flows 14,000 gallons of water per minute and a total of 1.5 million gallons total. This large amount of water has led to the major leakage problems, O’Neill said.

The other notable repair during phase one is the plaza renovation. The pink granite gravel is being replaced with permeable pavement that has crushed granite. The color will be the same.

The advantage of the permeable pavement is that any water runoff will drain in between the pavers. This pavement is also advantageous because it’s handicap accessible, in contrast to the rough gravel that made it difficult for wheelchairs, O’Neill said.

In addition, the plaza will have more trees and landscaping work around the four corners of the fountain with more benches for sitting.

The second phase will consist of rebuilding the lower basin, creating a new pump house and the restoration of the bronze sculptures, pink marble and lighting of the fountain. This phase will begin after Labor Day.

The entire 280-foot outer basin slab has disintegrated and needs to be replaced. A different lighting scheme and system will also be installed. The new lights will co-relate and compliment the new lighting system being installed in the Congress Parkway renovation.

“The idea is to eventually coordinate the lighting between the fountain and Congress Parkway and draw more of a connection,” O’Neill said.

The renovation projects at Buckingham Fountain and Congress Parkway fall under the Daniel Burnham plan, with the centennial this year.

“Buckingham Fountain is an icon of Chicago, and the idea is to make it as beautiful and long-lasting as possible,” O’Neill said.

The renovation was split into two phases because the Park District did not want the fountain closed during the warm weather months, and complete funding has not been raised, said Alison Krzys, spokesperson for the Chicago Parkway Foundation, a fundraising organization partnered with the Park District to help raise money for projects.

The renovation will cost $25 million, which is being raised through a combination of public and private funds.

“The biggest challenge has been raising the money,” O’Neill said.

The poor shape of the economy and local and state budget deficits have made it difficult to raise funds, O’Neill said.

The original breakdown of the funds includes $4 million from the city of Chicago, $4 million from the Chicago Park District, $8 million provided by the Ferguson fund (administered by the Art Institute of Chicago and used to renovate public sculptures), $1 million from the Lollapalooza festival, $4 million from the state and $4 million in private funding.

“I think it’s well worth spending the money on it; it pays for itself in the long run because it’s such an attraction,” he said.