History & Architecture

Like no other aquarium in the world
Shedd combines the best of early 20th-century “age of aquariums” characteristics—a diverse, global animal collection surrounded by eye-popping architecture—with 21st-century advances in animal care, environments and interpretation. Excellence and innovation are Shedd traditions, and they began with the founder.

Mr. Shedd’s gift
John G. Shedd wanted to give back to the city in which he had risen from stock boy to president of department store giant Marshall Field & Company. Because every great city in the United States and Europe had a fine aquarium, he decided that Chicago must have the biggest and best.

Mr. Shedd imagined a stately marble building and a collection of aquatic animals from around the world that would complement the two world-class institutions already in Grant Park, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

With Shedd’s initial donation of $2 million, the not-for-profit Shedd Aquarium Society was founded on Feb. 1, 1924, “to construct, maintain and operate an aquarium or museum of aquatic life exclusively for educational and scientific purposes….” A circle of parkland at the end of 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road) was donated and the planning began. Walter Chute, who would become the aquarium’s director, toured the major U.S. and European aquariums to study what excelled (and what didn’t) and then worked side by side with the architects to create a state-of-the-art aquarium inside and out, supported by Mr. Shedd’s gift of an additional $1 million.

John G. Shedd never saw his aquarium. He died in October 1926 at age 76. The board of directors carried on, and ground was broken in November 1927. The John G. Shedd Aquarium opened to throngs of guests on May 30, 1930.

Neptune’s temple
Shedd was designed by one of Chicago’s most prestigious and accomplished architectural firms, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Masters of the Beaux-Arts style (their other work includes the Field Museum and Wrigley Building), they created a neoclassical temple of white marble and terra cotta that celebrates aquatic life, from the marine fossils in its limestone floor to Neptune’s trident capping its glass dome.

But where Greek or Roman temples were built on a circle-in-a-cross floor plan, the original building has an octagonal footprint. Noting the lack of workspace in aquariums of the day, Chute had the architects build out the corners of the cross, giving Shedd its distinctive shape and creating room for reserve areas, feed rooms and an early animal hospital.

Since 1930, Shedd has expanded twice, with both additions carefully respecting the original architecture that earned the aquarium a National Historic Landmark designation. The modernistic Abbott Oceanarium, which opened in 1991, was linked physically and philosophically to the original structure by using the same white Georgia marble on its exterior. Wild Reef, which opened in 2003, was constructed 25 feet below street level under the original south terrace. Although they are not visible from the front of the aquarium, together these exhibits nearly doubled Shedd’s square footage and made possible vast habitats for marine mammals and large sharks and rays.

Chicago’s inland sea
Shedd was the first inland aquarium with permanent saltwater exhibits as well as freshwater habitats. In early 1930, 20 insulated railroad tank cars circulated between Key West, Florida, and Chicago until a million gallons of tropical ocean water filled the marine animal habitats.

At the same time, Mr. Shedd’s daughters, Helen and Laura, donated $250,000 to purchase the animal collection. Director Chute, a keen fish enthusiast, sought species never seen before in the United States through exchanges with foreign aquariums and Shedd collecting expeditions in the Caribbean and South Pacific. And from the beginning, Shedd partnered with local wildlife officials to also showcase the native fishes of the Great Lakes region. But Chute could never have imagined the Abbott Oceanarium with Pacific white-sided dolphins, beluga whales, sea otters and sea lions.

Get the full story
Dive deeper into Shedd’s history, animal stories and architecture in the hardcover book Shedd Aquarium, available in our gift stores and online.

Then be part of the story
When you’re a Shedd member, you’re a partner in everything we do—and together, we can make an amazing difference for animals!

Shedd Aquarium recommends the Zoo & Aquarium Video Archive project as an additional history resource.