On a cold, spring day I was accompanied by architects Uriel Schlair and Jerrold McIlvain and two Park District engineers into a great stone grotto few Chicagoans have ever seen. We entered the only way possible: by climbing a ladder, then descending through a manhole into a kind of crawl space, and worming along painfully through several openings before entering a large, circular, concrete cavern. In the middle of this area is a tangle of ancient, rusted pipes forming a central shaft rising up through the ceiling. The cavern looks very much like a cave, especially because of the mass of sodium stalactites hanging from the gray walls. The area down here is frequented only by occasional ducks which come in to lay eggs or stray cats which usually die because they can’t find their way out. Even the homeless are wary, since the place is cold, dark and, in the spring and summer, pretty wet. Standing there, I found it hard to believe we were in the very bowels of what many consider the city’s most beautiful and enduring architectural monument, the Buckingham Fountain. A rumor, recently publicized by the supermarket tabloid, the Star, has it that Al Capone buried $5 million in gold bars somewhere down here. But Chicago Park District engineer John Burke, who frequents these dank environs regularly, was dubious. “If it’s down here,” he said, “he sure did a great job of hiding it, because we sure haven’t seen it.”

We had come not seeking treasure but to better understand why the 67-year-old fountain is about to undergo a $2.2-million overhaul. Schlair and McIlvain, both with Harry Weese Associates, are in charge of the renovation project.

The stalactites, explained Schlair, provide ample evidence of the problem; they are formed by sodium leaking from the concrete. In fact, he noted, when samples of concrete were extracted from the wall, they crumbled into dusty particles, having long ago lost most of their binding elements.

“Buckingham Fountain,” said Schlair solemnly, “is in a state of imminent structural collapse.”

Next we toured the fountain’s power plant, which can be entered through a small, mostly underground building at the southeast corner of the plaza which surrounds the fountain. It houses the controls for the 134 individual jets of water and the more than 600 lamps and projectors that create the water and light effects. Until 20 years ago this was command central where technicians in season manipulated the levers daily. Gradually over the years the functions were automated–partly in response to public complaints that (as one letter writer told the Tribune) “unesthetic operators” were creating “weird futuristic designs.” In 1980 the entire operation was computerized. The Honeywell Corp., which controls the temperature in thousands of buildings all over the country by computer, was asked to develop a special program for Buckingham. The result allowed the fountain to perform all its functions exactly on time at the direction of a computer in Lincolnwood. In 1983 Honeywell centralized its computer operations in Atlanta, and it is from there that every mechanical and electrical activity of the fountain has been directed for the past 11 years.

Nevertheless, Park District operating engineer John Burke and his partner, Joseph Spizzirri, have to spend two or three hours every day, even in the off-season, checking on the gradually deteriorating equipment, replacing lights and repairing malfunctioning valves. Their job is somewhat simplified by the fact that the Atlanta computer, some 800 miles away, instantly informs them when and where a problem occurs.

On a level below the control center is a small, cramped area that resembles the engine room of a submarine. Here are the three original electric motors (together generating 515 horsepower) which energize the water display. Burke said there is nothing quite like the noise and 110 degree temperature in the room on a hot summer night when all three motors are going at full throttle. Schlair noted that the motors are still in prime condition and will not have to be replaced. During a major display they can still blast out 15,000 gallons of water a minute drawn in from a huge, underwater tank. Most of the water then cascades down into the pool below and drains back into the tank in preparation for being shot heavenward again in a continuing cycle. When the wind is blowing sheets of water out into the plaza area, the tank automatically replenishes itself with lake water in much the same way that your toilet fills up after flushing.

The forthcoming renovation, which will close the fountain down for most of the summer, comes as no surprise to those familiar with its condition. In recent years maintenance workers had been increasingly concerned with cracks in the sculpted pink Georgia marble exterior, serious corrosion in the intricate plumbing system, and major deterioration in the electrical wiring. Most serious of all was the status of the massive reinforced concrete structure which (though largely invisible to the public) supports the three tiered basins of the fountain. Ironically, the primary destructive force at work here was the same reality that provides the fountain with its crowning glory: water. Moisture had been leaking into the concrete in dozens of places, freezing each winter and pushing relentlessly at the outer walls of the basins. In addition, the concrete itself was losing the calcium which holds it together. Maintenance crews took what stop-gap measures they could, including the placement of a ring of two-by-fours all around the bottom pool below the water line to hold the walls intact.

Two years ago officials of the Chicago Park District, which is in charge of maintenance, conferred with Chicago Art Institute executives, which handles fountain funding, and determined that a restoration was demanded. Eight architectural firms submitted ideas, and Harry Weese Associates got the nod in early 1993. The Weese firm has handled the restoration of a variety of important structures including the Field Museum, the Auditorium Theatre, and Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Schlair, a Weese archtect who specializes in this area, said he and colleague McIlvain were shocked when they conducted a thorough inspection of the fountain. “It was not a case of neglect,” he said, “just the ravages of time and Chicago weather.” They went over the place inch by inch, eventually producing three, thick volumes of analysis, photos and specific plans for restoration.

For Uriel Schlair and McIlvain, the project ahead has a kind of sacred significance. Since the overhaul was announced last March , Schlair said he has received letters and phone calls from local citizens, some worried that the fountain may be significantly altered, some wishing him well, some simply recounting wonderful memories associated with the fountain.

“It’s really quite extraordinary,” said Schlair. “Buckingham Fountain appears to be very central to the life of this community. It has a truly magical quality you don’t associate with many public monuments.” In fact, he notes, the fountain, has become a kind of “secular shrine” for Chicago. On inspection, the analogy does not appear far fetched. In an age when technology developments occur so quickly that computer and video systems are obsolete almost as soon as they arrive on the market, the old fountain, employing the same basic mechanism it was endowed with in 1927, still attracts thousands of faithful admirers throughout its spring and summer season. They stand in awe, mesmerized by the display of subtly shifting, colored lights, the cascading torrents, the jets gushing from the mouths of bronze sea monsters, and the dazzling, 10-story-high shaft of water that climaxes performances. They gather around the fountain even when its quiet just because it is a thing of extraordinary beauty. Numberless wedding vows are sealed in its shadow every summer, and tourists are forever having their pictures taken in front of it with the downtown skyline in the background.

In many ways Buckingham Fountain has become a symbol of the city, universally recognized and occasionally (like any great cathedral) exploited. Every segment of the abysmal television series, “Married With Children,” begins with a shot of the fountain spouting off while Frank Sinatra croons a fractured rendition of “Love and Marriage.” Fashion designers often use the fountain as a setting for models because, as one put it, “Buckingham Fountain has the same feeling as opening a bottle champagne.”

But if it inspires celebration, it is frequently a restrained, polite kind of celebration. Crowds gathered for a major display on a summer night are rarely raucous, according to Chicago Park District employees. Visiting there is a civilized experience, often a family affair–maybe even like going to church on Sunday.

Two years ago in an effort to measure human honesty, Conde Nast Traveler magazine had briefcases placed unattended at prominent locations in 14 major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo. Some were stolen within a few minutes and a few were left untouched for hours. But at only one site in the world did a passing Good Samartian open the briefcase, find a name and phone number, call and arrange to return the property to its ownner. That briefcase was the one left at Buckingham Fountain.

The fountain’s special status may stem in part from its history. It was presented to the city in 1927 as a no-strings-attached gift by Kate Buckingham, a wealthy, unmarried, eccentric heiress who collected valuable art pieces the way Imelda Marcos picked up shoes. She wanted something special in honor of her deceased brother Clarence and therefore oversaw every detail of the design and construction of the fountain. The architect, Edward H. Bennett, who had worked with Daniel Burnham on the plan for Grant Park, modeled the structure on a considerably smaller fountain at the royal palace in Versailles, France. Artist Marcel Layou designed the four pairs of large, bronze seahorses for the lower pool of the fountain and won France’s highest artistic award for his creation. Engineers used the hydraulic principles already employed in fire hoses in planning high velocity streams of water but had to invent special nozzles to get the desired effects without running up exorbitant energy bills.

Kate Buckingham wanted the light display to suggest “molten metal or liquid fire” and spared no expense authorizing a complex system of hidden lamps and projectors providing amber, rose, green and blue shadings. She was reportedly well pleased with her gift (officially known as the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain) when it gave its first public performance in August 1927, as John Philip Sousa’s band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” A crowd estimated at 50,000 gasped in wonder.

Buckingham had not only supplied the $750,000 cost of designing and building the landmark but she turned over a substantial endowment for upkeep. As a result no public funds have ever been spent on any aspect of Buckingham Fountain, and the costs of the forthcoming restoration will also come from the farsighted Kate Buckingham endowment.

This is not Schalir’s first quasi-religious project. And though he describes himself as a throughly “secular person,” he probes the spiritual significance of whatever he’s working on. As a major architect in the renovation of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, he studied in detail the faith and vision of the people who built it. In order to restore an authentic meeting house of the Maori natives for the Field Museum, he spent three weeks in New Zealand, participating in the rituals that take place in such houses. Schlair, who is 50, was born in Israel and pursued an early career in the Israeli Army (participating in the wars of 1969 and 1973). He studied architecture in Italy but was attracted to the United States largely from his reading the novels of John Steinbeck.

“It was an almost metaphysical experience,” he said. “I sensed the dynamism and drive that’s in America.” He moved to Chicago and completed studies at the University of Illinois Chicago campus in 1976. Since 1986 he’s been with Weese.

Schlair calls the restoration task ahead a “very cerebral operation–like detective work, following up on clues, or more like what an orthopedic surgeon does, carefully removing the parts that don’t work, replacing them and restoring the patient to good health and without any scars.”

Buckingham Fountain began seasonal operations as usual on May 1 but will be shut down after Taste of Chicago in July and will remain closed until May 1995. During that time the structure will be almost entirely dismantled. The marble skin, which is basically in good condition except for cracks, will be repaired and cleaned. The seahorses, also in good shape except for grime and oxidation, will also be cleaned. Most of the underlying concrete will be torn down, disposed of, and replaced by new material. The plumbing and lighting systems will be entirely overhauled. In the midst of the renovation, process, say next October, visitors may be shocked. Buckingham Fountain will have virtually disappeared, with only the shaft at the core protruding above ground.

When work is completed, however, Schlair insists the fountain will look and act exactly as it has in the past–only better. It will be cleaner and brighter, function more efficiently and economically and will be structurally solid. It is possible, he says, that a different kind of computer system will be employed, and he admits he is much enthralled with the idea of adapting the fountain to winter use. “Can you imagine the sight of it in the snow,” he said, “with the lights on and great clouds of steam rising up!” As yet, restoration plans do not call for such an adaptation

Schlair’s fascination with the fountain’s charisma extends in all directions. “Seldom,” he said, “do you come upon a structure that so unites the people who work on it.” The Park District, the Art Institute, the archtects and the construction firm, he notes, are all collaborating in restoration plans, “with a single-minded clarity of mission that is almost unprecedented.

“There’s no argument, no need to struggle–you have to attribute this to the respect everyone has for it. And I must admit I get quite a lift out of being involved in what matters so much to so many people.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.