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A fountain for the Great Lakes

Flickr user John Schiebel (CC)

The Fountain of the Great Lakes in the Art Institute's South Garden is a beautiful representation of water flowing through the Great Lakes.

It’s springtime in Chicago.

The ebb and flow of nature is in flux again and as the seasonal clock turns, so does our attention. We desire to be outside again; to recreate, socialize or just sit and take in our surroundings—alfresco.

Since it's World Water Day, I thought it was appropriate to share a great, outdoor public space—one of my favorite to spend time in—that features a wonderful tribute to the region’s water wealth: the South Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a reminder of the opportunity and responsibility we have with a Great Lake on our doorstep.

Danielle Gallet

The South Garden, looking toward the pool and the Fountain of the Great Lakes.

The South Garden is located directly south of the main entrance to the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue. While this area of the city is filled with acres of park space designed for spectacle—Millennium Park is just north, and Grant Park is just south—the South Garden, designed by Dan Kiley and completed in 1967, while grand, is for quiet reflection. Kiley’s award-winning design has many brilliant components to it, including its calming symmetry, the cooling effect of the canopy of trees and the sound of flowing water, which all work to immediately transport you out of the urban racket into a more tranquil experience.

The centerpiece of the South Garden is the large, bronze fountain at the east end that overlooks a pool. Created 50 years before the park by sculptor Lorado Taft and titled Fountain of the Great Lakes, this fountain is my very most favorite part of the park.

Many people who frequent the park today are not aware of the symbolic nature of the fountain, possibly due to the fact that the name plaque is on the back of the fountain and not readable. So here is the story of the fountain, which—water geek that I am—should explain why I love it so much.

Flickr user Heather Paul (CC)

Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario (top to bottom, left to right)

The fountain features five women who are arranged so that water flows between them the same way it flows through the five Great Lakes. “Superior,” the lake that is both deepest and highest above sea level, stands tallest, pouring her water down to the others. “Michigan” stands to the left of “Huron,” tipping water into her shell. “Huron” in turn flows into “Erie,” who then finally passes the water along to “Ontario,” who is depicted looking out, ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean.

The fountain is not only beautiful, it is a wonderful depiction of the interactive relationship between the Great Lakes and a tribute to this sacred resource.

It’s also Taft’s response to Daniel Burnham’s complaint at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 that the sculptors responsible for ornamenting the fairgrounds failed to produce anything that represented the great natural resources of the west, especially the Great Lakes.

So as we Chicagoans come out to play with the turning of the weather, I would encourage you to explore the South Garden, check out the Fountain of the Great Lakes and celebrate the awesome privilege it is to reside alongside the greatest interconnected source of surface fresh water in the world.

Happy World Water Day!

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