“Mom, Are You Coming?”

One of the great, mutual joys of visiting Chicago was our tour of the Shedd Aquarium.  The middle Blandings boy has been an ocean enthusiast since he was about two-and-a-half.  A nature lover at heart, he was the one who entered our bedroom at 6 a.m. one day to report, “There’s a bat in my room.”  There was.  When I asked Mr. Blandings later if he was skeptical of the assessment he gave me a level look and replied, “No.  Because it was Ben.”

We have been wanting to take him to the Shedd since the mania began, but then number three came along and we looked up and it was five years later.

The creatures I was prepared for.  What took my breath away was the architecture.  “Are you guys noticing the building?” was a constant refrain during the entire trip, but here I could barely speak.

Design began in 1925 for a world class aquarium.  Ernest Graham of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White took the lead on the project.  Graham was part of a movement of city leaders to make Chicago, “The Paris of the Prairie.”

Following the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1839 Beaux Arts architecture became the rage.  A marriage of intricate ornamentation and classic design principles, this public space sings its enthusiasm for its mission.

Shells, sea horses, crabs, fish and octopuses adorn door ways, walls and light fixtures.

I cannot think that it is a coincidence that the sea-foam green marble of the dado mimics the ocean.

The intricacy of the design is a marvel.  The attention to detail astounding.
I have a friend who did an internship with an architect in high school to meet a graduation requirement.  During the interview he asked her, “Do you look at buildings and wonder why they are built the way they are?”  Of course she replied affirmatively to get the job, but admitted to me later that she was a fraud.

But I do.  Beyond that, I wish I could communicate with those giddy ghosts who haunt these halls, designers who marveled at the freedom to create and the resources that were available to allow them to do so. 

Ignorant of how architects work, I have no idea if Graham would have been involved on this level.  Who received the job to go back to his drafting table to design the lighting?  The thrill of the task would surely have sent me to the ladies’ room to put my head between my knees.

The thing is, this building is a monster, even without the later additions.  We are not talking about a couple of clever mosaics in the entry; the wonder is everywhere.

The classic forms of the columns and friezes clearly keep the whole thing from tipping to kitsch.

A project like this in nearly unimaginable today.  The Shedd opened just following the stock market crash in 1929.

Over the next couple of years its founders shipped one million gallons of salt water by rail from Florida to accommodate the exhibits.  

You can feel them here, those men who committed to making their Midwestern town a destination.

Graham’s firm designed some of the greatest buildings in Chicago including the Field Museum, Union Station, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Civic Opera, the Wrigley Building and the Merchandise Mart.

The Shedd Aquarium was their last.

It was quite a finale.
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmail      rssrss

22 thoughts on ““Mom, Are You Coming?”

  1. Well, what a beautiful building. Your pictures of the details whet my appetite to visit this when I am in Chicago next. Thanks for the tour.

  2. Venus & Vulcan would be delighted with that Shed(d)
    Venus made a wonderful "Soupe de poisson" while Vulcan was at sea and the smells brought him home. That building would surely do the same.

  3. How wonderful to read that you also notice and apreciate all the details of the architecture of the buildings you visit. Same with me, I am most of the time more occopied with the architecture of a building than the actual reason I am in that building. I just love American government/institutional buildings. It is of an impressive formality, almost intimidating. It leaves me in awe.
    Love your blog, never miss any post!!
    Ron/The Netherlands

  4. Wonderful post – you really captured the richness of Shedd architecture and fixtures. It’s often referred to as a Beaux-Arts jewel box. I worked there for three years, and every day would spot some some aquatic detail that I’d never seen before. Your point about the green marble being suggestive of ocean waves is on point – that was an important element of the original design. The animal collection is amazing too – this institution is amazing on many levels. And to think the original cost was about $3.5 million, a gift to the city (and the world)from John G. Shedd, who was the CEO of the iconic department store, Marshall Field’s. A good example of the enduring benefits of philanthropy and beautiful architecture.

  5. Wow, that is imressive! It will be on my list when I take my daughter to Chicago next spring. Thanks, so much for the tour!

  6. I’ve driven by this museum while in town, but never went in as I’m not much a fan of ‘creatures’. WOW -Now I’m definitely running towards it – beautiful!! Love the history lesson as well 🙂
    PS. lots of interns and cheap labor of draftsmen went into the design of this building – much like buildings today -haha. One of my first assignments was doing the design in floor tile for a cafeteria – I made it the most fabulous cafeteria floor EVER!

  7. Just amazing. Last summer my parents took my niece to the Shedd. Although they also did the architecture tour on the river, I don’t recall many images like yours of the actual Shedd building. Now I have loads of questions for them 🙂

  8. I am sorry that we missed seeing this. It looks like an amazing building. The detail is incredible.

    Did you all do the Chicago Architectural Tour on the River? That was soooo interesting.

  9. You must, must go if given the opportunity. I also way undersold the creatures which were truly amazing. It’s a wonderful facility and the staff that we encountered was lovely and helpful. As for the architectural tour, I did not think two hours on a boat looking at buildings was going to be popular with boys ages 5, 8 and 11. Mr. B. and I definitely need to go back just the two of us as we missed a few things we usually love. And to eat.

  10. Nell – I’m so glad you left a comment, I was hoping there was someone who knew more. You are right about the initial funding and the donor. When you consider the number of significant buildings that the leaders at the time planned and commissioned it’s a bit awe inspiring.

  11. The detail is incredible! I’m especially taken with that coffered ceiling. Makes me want to hop on the next plane to Chicago!

  12. That was a wonderful post! Several of us from our architecture practice in Virginia are headed to Chicago for the Traditional Building Conference in September, and I will definitely visit the Shedd. Thanks for having a good camera eye for the building’s exquisite details.

  13. While seldom a fan of leaded glass lamps I’ve got to admit that the nautilus shell rising from a base of coral branches was just plain wonderful.
    As was the overdoor relief in the final image, with its symmetrical dolphins.
    Thanks for the tour!

  14. I’m so delighted to see your collection of photos from the Shedd! I haven’t been in years, but it was one of my favorites during the time I lived in Chicago. The company I worked for actually had their annual Christmas party at there every year. Can you imagine? Cocktails in the Oceanarium, dinner among the fishies in the main building and then dancing uder the nautalis lights. It was divine.

  15. Lord, my mind is exploding. I love all of this! What creativity! Wonderful buildings were realized in the 1920’s. This is just spectacular. I have too many ideas now, I must go lie down.

  16. mine too Pamela. I’ve always wanted to see such a plethora of Sea related motif. I’ve got to get to Chicago for many reasons, but to see this. Everything you photographed reminds me of the great Ernst Haeckel’s oceanic illustrations and engravings.

    I could spend all day there looking at this architecture and have to come back for the acquatic life.

    This was very special, Mrs. Blandings, thanks so much for introducing me to this grand old building.

  17. If you are fond of the city of Chicago, its architecture and history, try to read “The Devil and the White City”…a fabulous and intriguing story of the Expostion and the development of the city.

  18. Great post! I have to respond to your comment that, “A project like this in nearly unimaginable today.” I hear what you are saying, but wanted to call your attention to The Institute of Classical Architecture: http://www.classicist.org/

    There are architects and some patrons alive and well today who understand the classical orders and elements necessary to create such a building of extraordinary beauty. I went on an excellent classical tour of Nashville with the Institute a few years ago. I wonder if we could lure the institute to the Midwest for a tour?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *