At 120 feet wide and more than 20 feet high at its tallest point, Fountain of Time was the largest work undertaken by Taft. He is said to have used the likenesses of his daughters in the procession, as well as his own portrait near the center of the rear (westward) elevation. An earnest promoter of women’s equality, Taft invited women artists to contribute to his Midway Beautiful project (although it is not clear if these artists were ever involved in the production of Fountain of Time). In his larger scheme, however, the portrait sculptures intended to frame the Midway exclusively commemorated great men of history. Thus, Taft’s political agenda, though progressive, was ultimately veiled. His radical promotion of women artists strikes a curious contrast with the 19th–century aesthetic ideals upon which Midway Beautiful, as a work of civic art, was explicitly based.
Taft collaborated with an experienced concrete contractor, John J. Earley, to carry out the definitive version of the fountain, while noted Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed the massive base that supports the wave of figures. Despite having sacrificed the proposed marble structure for concrete, Taft and Earley were ultimately pleased with the results of Fountain of Time. Indeed, Taft came to see concrete as expanding the possibilities of public sculpture and making civic beautification projects like his Midway plan possible for smaller towns across the nation. Complications nevertheless arose. The fountain’s innovative construction method required numerous molds of varying sizes, and the treatment of the concrete, which had seen earlier use in architectural projects but rarely in outdoor sculpture, demanded trial and experimentation. This groundbreaking material construction belied the supposedly anti–modern themes of Fountain of Time, foreshadowing the explosion of the use of concrete in 20th–century art.
Yet this experimentalism also left Fountain of Time vulnerable. Taft and Earley’s solution called for a partially hollow superstructure but did not include ventilation to mitigate the impact of climate. Expansion and contraction of the concrete in Chicago’s harsh winters produced cracking and spalling soon after the sculpture was completed. Several small–scale restoration attempts were made over the years, but the condition of the sculpture continued to deteriorate. By the later 20th century, a comprehensive restoration plan was urgently needed. Administered by the Art Institute of Chicago and supervised by a team of experts, a first in–depth attempt was made on the fountain to conserve, stabilizing its existing condition, and restore, returning it to an approximate original state. Ultimately, a massive resurfacing project was deemed artistically and structurally necessary. This joint undertaking secured the interior structure while reconstructing the former detail and clarity of the worn exterior. Hidden for several years within a weather–protective enclosure, Fountain of Time was brought as close as possible to its original condition before being revealed to the public again in 2007. The reality of its exposure outdoors means that conservation efforts will be ongoing, and fundamentally restitutive in nature.
True to its name, Fountain of Time embodies a critical point in Chicago’s history and self–image. To meet the terms of its funding, the fountain officially commemorated the centennial of the Treaty of Ghent—the beginning of peace between the United States and Great Britain. Artistically, however, Taft envisioned Fountain of Time to recall the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, civic beautification in America (the marble “White City”), and Chicago’s extraordinary trajectory from trading outpost to undisputed global metropolis. It sought to promote Chicago as a leading city of art and culture around the world, echoing the conceptual mission of the University of Chicago (from whose students Taft solicited donations). In the end, Fountain of Time was the only piece of Midway Beautiful that ever came to fruition. It serves as a continuing reminder of young Chicago’s civic pride, with the Midway Plaisance at its epicenter. It also reveals something of its creator’s hopes and values at a moment of radical redefinition in the standards, material and aesthetic, of Western art. Fountain of Time has maintained this link to history as the city has changed around it. It alludes unceasingly to a Chicago that might have been, even while affirming, implicitly, that it could not be. Taft himself seems to have recognized this truth. Time stays, we go.