Fountain of Time

Fountain of Time, 1922
Lorado Taft
Washington Park, west end of Midway Plaisance
5900 South Cottage Grove Avenue

Located in Washington Park, a 367-acre expanse designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time is the only realized portion of his grand beautification scheme for the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long and 220 yard-wide area linking Washington and Jackson Parks on Chicago’s south side. Originally, he envisioned an equally monumental “Fountain of Creation” to be erected on the east end of the Midway, consisting of figures emerging from the earth, acting out the Greek legend of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, who repopulated the earth following the Deluge by throwing stones over their shoulders. Visitors to the east end of the Midway will find, instead, the Thomas G. Masaryk Memorial, installed in 1955.
            The work is not a fountain at all but, rather, a massive 110-foot long sculptural relief of 100 figures behind a pool of water, traveling from birth to death before a 16-foot tall mantled figure representing “Time.” Taft stated that the lone figure standing across the water was  “watching with cynical, inscrutable gaze the endless march of humanity.” Taft found inspiration for the work in a passage from a poem by Austin Dobson:

            Time goes, you say? Ah, no.
            Alas, Time stays; we go.

The figures include dancing children, a priest, a poet, a conquering hero on horseback, soldiers, lovers, an old man reaching for death as well as a self-portrait of Taft on the back, striding with hands behind his back in a meditative pose. Viewers may find it hard to imagine that the work, commissioned in 1913 by the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund, was intended to commemorate 100 years of peace between the Britain and America following the Treaty of Ghent, thus fulfilling the requirement that sculptures funded by the trust related to “important events in American history.”
            In addition to being a haunting and visually stunning work, the Fountain of Time was an incredible technical achievement for the time. As stone carving and bronze casting were ruled out due to expense and time considerations, Taft appealed to John Joseph Earley, a sculptor who had developed a pebble-finish architectural concrete to complete the casting. Over 4500 pieces comprised the finished mold but Earley was able to complete the casting in less than a year and the work was unveiled in 1922. Since that time, due to vandalism and the effects of harsh weather and pollution, the sculpture has undergone a number of renovations and repairs.

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