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Book Review: Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains

Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains. Greg Borzo and Julia Thiel (Photographer). Southern Illinois University Press, May 10, 2017, Hardcover, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Medlock.

Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains could have been titled The Precarious History of Chicago’s Fountains. for as this fascinating book reveals, for every Chicago fountain that was designed, placed in its intended location, and maintained for public enjoyment, there is one that has been dismantled, moved to an obscure site, or left to suffer in sad disrepair.

Author Greg Borzo divides the book into sections by type of fountain, including first fountains, iconic, plaza, park, drinking, and forgotten. His text is enhanced by the lovely photographs of his collaborator, Julia Thiel. Each section reveals something about the history of Chicago, as well as the businessmen and politicians who were often at the center of fountain development.

For example, we learn that the city’s oldest surviving fountain is named after entrepreneur Francis M. Drexel, who never even visited Chicago. An Austrian immigrant, Drexel became one of the nation’s most successful bankers. His sons ran a branch of his bank in Chicago. After his death in 1863, his sons, Francis A. and Anthony Drexel, donated a street to bear his name, and then in 1881 paid the princely sum of $50,000 ($1.2 million today) to have a fountain installed with a statue of their father on top. It sits at the end of Drexel Boulevard on Chicago’s South Side. Although the Drexel Fountain was unveiled with great fanfare in 1883, it was not properly maintained and languished inoperable until the 1990s, when it, and the neighborhood around it, underwent a renovation.

Borzo does ample justice to the city’s major fountains, such as the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain and the much more recent and instantly popular Crown Fountain, with its faces of Chicago spitting water onto the surface of the street in Millennium Park. But he also digs up material on the whimsical, strange, and downright odd fountains that dot the city. The Shit Fountain, for example, features an enormous bronze coil representing dog poop. It sits on Wolcott Avenue, in front of the residence and studio of artist Jerzy Kenar. “I hoped it would motivate dog owners to pick up after their pets,” the artist reportedly said.

According to Borzo, many fountains have a short life, even the most popular ones. The Olson Rug Waterfall, for example, opened in 1935 on the southwest corner of Diversey and what is now Pulaski Road. Created within a park for the enjoyment of Olson Rug Company employees, it became very popular with the public because the impressive waterfall was thirty-five feet tall and emptied into a lily pool at the rate of fifteen thousand gallons per minute. Unfortunately for fountain lovers, Marshall Fields bought and closed the whole park in the 1970s to make room for a parking lot. Such was the fate of a treasure that topped the Chicago Tribune’s list of the city’s “seven lost wonders.”

One of the most interesting pieces of social history Borzo’s book reveals concerns drinking fountains. Today, we hardly think of a concrete block with a bubbler on top as a “fountain,” but when drinking fountains were first established, they had an entirely different social and aesthetic function.

Chicago’s first drinking fountains were designed to provide water for people, especially the poor, who had less access to clean drinking water. Horses, and often dogs, were other important patrons of such fountains. These fountains had metal cups attached with a chain to a wide upper bowl. Passersby could scoop up the water that was also available to horses. A bowl at sidewalk level provided water for dogs. These fountains were often elaborately decorated and beautiful. The Illinois Humane Society placed sixty of them around the city in the early 1900s. Once people understood the dangers of germs, the metal cups were removed and more sanitary bubbler systems were installed. Only two of the Humane Society fountains remain, near Michigan and Chicago Avenues.

Although drinking fountains have gradually disappeared, fountains in general are having a moment in Chicago. Major Richard M. Daley initiated a fountain-building program in the 1990s, and many of the corporations that make Chicago their home have added impressive indoor and outdoor fountains around downtown. Why? Because fountains are important. They bring people together and refresh the spirit. In the words of Chicago architect John David Mooney, “Chicago is what it is thanks to water, and fountains can help us to remember that.”

Borzo’s wonderful book is well-researched and exuberantly written. This is a book to give for the holidays. It’s a book to be savored. The author provides a map to all the fountains he describes, and I hope that some entrepreneurial soul will offer Chicago fountain tours in the near future. I’m ready to sign up now.


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