Washington Park’s ‘Fountain of Time’ sculpture shows its age as it approaches 100 years

Chicago is a big city – 234 square miles. Not only is the city big, but there are many things in it: buildings, parks, statues. Thus, no one can be blamed for missing any particular thing. No shame there.

I hope.

So I was driving aimlessly around Washington Park on Saturday and passed Loredo Taft’s “Fountain of Time,” a 126-foot-long, 126-foot tableau of 100 people trudging from birth to death, located at the west end of Midway Plaisance.

I stopped and put on my turn signals.

Maybe you live on the south side. Maybe you’ve walked past that sprawling screen all your life. Maybe, for you, not knowing about “Fountain of Time” is like not knowing there’s a stadium on the corner of Addison and Clark. You feel like giving a “harrumph” of superiority – go ahead and take it out. A key pleasure of city life is making fun of newbies. That’s what it’s really about: the joy of self-abasement, more difficult to exercise these days without consequences.

The sculpture is so large that it is difficult to photograph. A huge pool of water with a figure – Father Time, obviously – contemplating the human parade. Huge, but strangely unimpressive. Maybe I saw it before and forgot. Parts of its facade are cracked, missing, streaked.

Blame the Art Institute for its presence, which approved money for the work in 1913, through its Ferguson fund.

“Without doubt the greatest endeavor ever attempted in sculpture,” Taft said. It was meant to be part of an even larger beautification program, an equally grand companion “Fountain of Creation” planned for the other end of the Midway.

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

The effort was mocked from the start.

The Tribune, noting that the sculptor’s “courage exceeds his discretion”, shudders in horror at the painting. The New York newspapers scoffed.

“Chicago, with all its naive mistakes, deserves nothing like this,” sniffed one reviewer.

Harriet Monroe, a few years from the creation of “Poetry Magazine”, initially supported Taft in her newspaper column, but quickly questioned her “sculptural values” and called on the public to support her. The derision flowed.

A painter found the work “better suited to a cemetery than a public amenity ground”

Another questioned why Taft was chosen over, say, Rodin, blaming the application of “local standards” to a matter that should be decided using “world standards.”

The sculpture was to be made of Georgian marble. But complaints about aesthetics have led to questions about spending. Stone would cost $300,000 and deplete the Ferguson Fund for years. The concrete cost $45,000. It was so concrete, strewn with pebbles from the Potomac River, declared as “imperishable as bronze or marble.”

Only it wasn’t. A quarter century of harsh Chicago winters, not to mention vandalism, tore the thing apart – noses were especially prone to disappearing. “If you want to see the famous fountain, you better do it soon,” warned the Daily News in 1958.

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

“Time flies, you say? Ah no, Alas, time remains, here we go.

A statue dedicated to impermanence might seem like a contradiction. It is perhaps normal for the work to continually fall apart, despite costly efforts to repair and restore it.

The past is a gift: Unbeknownst to our ancestors, we would be naked apes living in caves, lazing in the sun and eating berries. (Hmmmm…that doesn’t sound bad, does it?) But the past also imposes a burden. I’ve just contemplated Taft’s work, and though I’m not expert enough to call it mediocre, and I never would anyway, lest some grandson lash out in defense of the honor of his ancestor… let’s just say, for me, in my personal opinion, Loredo Taft is a master class in the quality of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Perhaps Taft is offering a message to future artists: better to focus on creating one finely crafted figure than throwing out 100.

Taft, to his credit, felt he had done a shoddy job.

“If I failed, it was my fault,” admitted the sculptor, during the dedication of Fountain of Time on November 15, 1922. Well, his and that of the Ferguson Fund. I’ve contacted the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to see if a big centennial party is planned. They remain silent, which I will take for a “No”.

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