DOWNTOWN — Here's the story behind all those familiar faces in Millennium Park.
Crown Fountain, the totemic spitting images of Chicagoans at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, is one of the Loop's biggest draws during the summer.
But people weren't always sure the fountain would be a hit.
"It was certainly audacious," said Tom Jacobs of Chicago-based Krueck+Sexton architects, which was involved with the project. "It was hard to get a handle on whether this was the most brilliant thing ever done or a bit tacky, especially where the spouting was concerned."
The fountain, named for the family of Chicago industrialist Henry Crown, opened in 2004 along with the rest of Millennium Park. Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the fountain is a pair of 50-foot-tall video boards showing ordinary Chicagoans spouting water at each other.
"In a way, the faces are like a mosaic representing the different cultures of the city's people," Plensa said in a 2006 interview with Sculpture magazine. "But for me, the beauty of the work consists of the fact that in the midst of this vast emptiness, the towers produce enormous tension. I think that people go there in order to feel this magnetism."
Crown Fountain on its opening day in 2004. [Courtesy of Chicago Public Library]
Plensa used the faces of 1,000 "ordinary" Chicagoans for the fountain. The School of the Art Institute found subjects by calling community groups around the city and asking for volunteers. They were videotaped sitting in an adjustable dentist chair.
One of them was Homer Bryant, director of the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center in Printers Row. He was summoned to the School of the Art Institute, where he sat in a chair and made faces for photographers.
"They had us blow; make a hole with our lips," Bryant said. "It was quite an afternoon."
The structure itself is a pair of 50-foot-tall sculptures with LED screens and water spouts encased in glass bricks. The fountain originally used 30-inch thick LED screens before installing thinner, more efficient screens this year, Jacobs said.
People whose faces were photographed for the fountain are hard to find. Many have since left Chicago, and some are dead. New portraits will not be taken for Crown Fountain. This was Plensa's intention.
"The ephemeral is a great tribute to life," Plensa said in a published 2005 interview with Spanish art critic and curator Montse Badia. "The fountain is always full of people in quest of fresh water, like bees, birds or dragonflies are. It is truly a representation of nature in an urban space."
And maybe that's why the fountain attracts so many people now. It means a lot to the people whose faces grace the fountain.
"It's good to be a part of the fabric of the city," Bryant said.
Kids playing in Crown Fountain on opening day in 2004. [Courtesy of Chicago Public Library]
Plensa in front of a Crown Fountain mockup in 2003 in Utah. [Courtesy of Chicago Public Library]
A boy in front of Crown Fountain at night in 2004.
One of Plensa's early sketches of Crown Fountain. [Chicago Public Library]
Crown Fountain in the summer of 2015. [DNAinfo/David Matthews]
Jacobs' wife Kim and children in front of his Crown Fountain portrait in 2008. The family used this photo for a Christmas card.