About Shedd

Architecture Styles

From World's Fair to World's Aquarium

A Beaux Arts Beauty
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago wowed visitors with its Beaux Arts architecture. The style combined fancy ornamentation with classic Greek and Roman forms. People could not get enough of it. Beaux Arts would be all the rage well into the Roaring ’20s.

In 1925, the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White was hired to design Shedd Aquarium in the grand Beaux Arts tradition. The chief architect was Ernest Graham, who had worked for Daniel Burnham, one of the city’s premier architects and a visionary urban planner. Graham shared Burnham’s dream to transform Chicago into the “Paris of the Prairie.” The world-class aquarium would be his firm’s last Beaux Arts building and the grandest by far. 

Neptune’s Temple
Shedd Aquarium rises like a temple on the shore of Lake Michigan. A broad staircase leads to heavy bronze doors. Doric columns support an elegant portico. The floor plan is traditional Greek. The foyer looks like a Roman basilica. 

Graham incorporated a multitude of aquatic elements into his design for the new aquarium. Crested waves roll over the cornices and up the glass dome to Neptune’s trident. Traditional rosettes keep company with dolphins, sea turtles, fishes and sea stars on doorframes, ceiling panels and chandeliers. Octopuses drape over bronze lamps. A clock featuring an assortment of aquatic life hangs in the rotunda.

Form Follows Function
Shedd’s magnificent building remained unchanged for decades. But beginning in the 1970s, aquariums started to look at exhibitry in a whole new way. Displays were featuring marine mammals, and immersive exhibits were replacing passive observation. “Form follows function,” said famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. It was clear that Shedd’s very architecture would have to change to keep pace.  

Shedd decided to showcase a single ecosystem — the Pacific Northwest — and place visitors directly into the exhibit. The aquarium hired renowned architect Dirk Lohan. His job was not an easy one. An addition would have to complement — not compete with — a national historic landmark building. There was also the not-so-minor detail that the land needed for expansion was under Lake Michigan. And, of course, Shedd had to plan for the complex needs of a variety of marine animals.

Nature’s Amphitheater
The state-of-the-art Oceanarium opened in 1991, nearly doubling Shedd’s size. The addition extends out from the back of the aquarium on about two acres of landfill, leaving the front of Shedd unchanged. Classic and contemporary join seamlessly. A massive glass wall connects ocean to lake. Visitors walk through the coastal forest and around tidal pools — a splash away from whales, dolphins and sea otters. An open seating area for viewing animal presentations evokes a natural outdoor amphitheater.   

A Fin-ished Basement
For the second expansion in its history, Shedd ventured underground. The firm of Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis Architects was hired to design a south wing — underground — to house the stupendous Wild Reef, a re-creation of a Philippine coral reef.  

The 27,000-square-foot addition is a compact two-level structure built 25 feet below street level. Twenty-six interconnected habitats hold more than 750,000 gallons of water. Wild Reef’s floor-to-ceiling acrylic windows are some of the largest ever created.

Once again, architecture would shape the experience, guide the senses and create the “wow!” visitors have come to expect from Shedd.

Charting your course to a fabulous day at Shedd can be smooth sailing! Plan your visit today.

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