Washington Park’s ‘Fountain of Time’ sculpture shows its age as the century approaches

Chicago is a big place – 234 square miles. The city is not only big, but there is also a lot: buildings, parks, statues. So no one can be blamed for missing something specific. No shame there.

I hope.

So on Saturday I drove aimlessly through Washington Park and passed Loredo Taft’s Fountain of Time, a 126-foot tableau of 100 people plodding along from birth to ruin, located on the west side of the Midway Plaisance.

I stopped and turned on my turn signals.

Maybe you live on the south side. You may have passed this sprawling display all your life. Maybe for you not knowing Fountain of Time is the same as not knowing there is a baseball field on the corner of Addison and Clark. You feel like giving a “harrumph” in superiority – go ahead, take it out. An important pleasure of city life is mocking the newbies. That’s what the whole ketchup-on-hot dog thing is really about: the fun of belittling, harder to practice these days with no consequences.

The image is so large that it is difficult to photograph. A huge pool of water with one figure — Father Time, of course — watching the people parade. Huge, but strangely uninteresting. Maybe I’ve seen it before and then forgot. Parts of the facade are cracked, missing, striped.

Blame the Art Institute for being there, which approved money for the work in 1913 through the management of the Ferguson fund.

“Arguably the greatest venture ever attempted in sculpture,” Taft said. It was to be part of an even larger beautification plan, an accompanying Fountain of Creation, just as large, planned for the other end of the Midway.

More than 100 eight-foot-tall figures make up the sculpture. Loredo Taft embraced himself, the mustachioed man on the far right.

The attempt was mocked from the start.

The Tribune, noting that “the sculptor’s courage is beyond his discretion,” shuddered with horror at the scene. New York newspapers cheered.

“Chicago doesn’t deserve such a thing with all its naive mistakes,” one critic snorted.

Harriet Monroe, a few years after founding Poetry magazine, initially supported Taft in her newspaper column, but soon questioned his “sculpture” and appealed to the public to support her. The mockery flowed.

One painter thought the work was “better suited for a cemetery than for a public pleasure garden.”

Another questioned why Taft was chosen over, say, Rodin, for criticizing the application of “local standards” to an issue that should be decided using “global standards”.

The statue would be made of Georgian marble. But complaints about aesthetics led to questions about cost. Stone would cost $300,000 and deplete the Ferguson fund for years. Concrete cost $45,000. That’s how concrete it was, strewn with pebbles from the Potomac River, declared as “imperishable as bronze or marble.”

Only it wasn’t. A quarter of a century of harsh Chicago winters, not to mention vandalism, caused the thing to disintegrate into pieces — noses were especially prone to go. “If you want to see the famous fountain, you’d better do it soon,” the Daily News warned in 1958.

The work was based, Taft said, on lines from a poem by Henry Dobson:

‘Time goes, you say? Oh no, alas, time stands still, we are going.”

A statue dedicated to impermanence may seem contradictory. Perhaps it is fitting that the work insists on constantly crumbling, despite expensive efforts to repair and restore it.

The past is a gift: without the knowledge of our ancestors we would be naked monkeys living in caves, lazing in the sun and eating berries. (Hmmmm… doesn’t sound half bad, does it?) But the past also imposes a burden. I’ve just reviewed Taft’s body of work, and though I’m not knowledgeable enough to declare him mediocre, yet never would, or else a grandson would rush out of the wings to defend his ancestor’s honor… let’s just say that, for me, in my personal opinion, Loredo Taft is a masterclass in how good Augustus Saint-Gaudens really was.

Perhaps Taft offers a message to future artists: it’s better to focus on creating one finely crafted figure than to throw away 100 so-so.

Taft, to his credit, felt he had made a blunder.

“If I’ve failed, it’s my own fault,” admitted the sculptor at the Fountain of Time dedication on November 15, 1922. Well, his and the Ferguson Fund’s. I contacted the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to see if a major centennial celebration is planned. They are silent, which I will consider a “no”.

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