CHICAGO >> A bit after dawn Eric Kelmar and his team of engineers arrive for their routine check of Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain for the day.
“It takes a lot of love and maintenance to keep it running,” said Kelmar, assistant chief engineer for the Chicago Park District. “It is a privilege to have Buckingham Fountain as my office.”
It’s Kelmar and his team’s job is to make sure the fountain in Grant Park along Lake Michigan runs smoothly so visitors can enjoy the shows. During the day, displays include water jets shooting 150 feet in the air. At dusk the displays add 820 lights and classical music.
Among the team’s jobs? They clean bird feathers stuck to grates that line the fountain bottom, put on waders to check for broken lights and monitor the pumps under the fountain.
Whether it’s as a background for selfies or a view for morning runners, Buckingham Fountain with its sea horse sculptures is an iconic landmark in Chicago. Construction on the fountain finished in 1927, and most of the original parts have withstood the test of time. It’s still one of the largest fountains in the world.
Chicago art patron and philanthropist Kate Buckingham donated money in the mid-1920s to build the fountain in her brother Clarence Buckingham’s memory. An early Chicago Park District brochure says Kate Buckingham “worked night after night with technicians, trying out various colors of glass and adjusting the control of electric current” to produce the fountain lighting she wanted.
The final display each night begins promptly at 10:35 p.m. Water shoots up as part of a light and musical display that lasts 20 minutes. When the show is finished, the fountain water settles down calmly, until 8 a.m. the next morning when Kelmar and his team arrive to start the pump again.
“We are pretty much just shooting 20,000 gallons of water into the air a minute and have been doing for 90 years,” Kelmar said. “People from all over the world come to see it, and it draws attention (from) kids’ eyes today.”