“What is the Shedd Aquarium?” by S.M. O’Connor

For most of the 20th Century, the John G. Shedd Aquarium was the largest public aquarium on the planet.  The 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef is home to 500 tropical Caribbean reef sea creatures.  These include sharks, a moray eel, and a green sea turtle.  The 750,000-gallon Wild Reef is housed in a $45,000,000 subterranean structure.  It simulates a Philippine coral reef and is home to 540 species of sea creatures.  The 3,000,000-gallon Abbott Oceanarium simulates the environment of the Pacific Northwest.  It is home to beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea otters from California and Alaska, and sea lions from California.  The Polar Play Zone has a series of hands-on exhibits that illustrates how mammals and birds adapt to environments.  It is home to a colony of magellanic and rockhopper penguins from the Falklands Islands.  Exotic animals from the lakes and rivers of Australia, Asia, Africa, and South America live in the exhibit Rivers.  Animals that have adapted to live in isolation on islands or in lakes, such as a Grand Cayman blue iguana, live in the exhibit Islands and Lakes.  Aquatic animals, such as lake sturgeon, that are native to the Great Lakes, the Chicago River, Illinois River, and the Mississippi River live in At Home in the Great Lakes.  This exhibit is also home to invasive species, such as a four-foot-long Asian carp so Midwesterners can learn how to stop the spread of these invasive species.  Saltwater sea creatures from coastal waters to the ocean deeps, including Japanese spider crabs and a giant Pacific octopus, dwell in the exhibit Oceans. The Phelps Auditorium is home to Shedd’ 4-D Experience, which combines a high-definition digital 3-D projection system, a high-tech audio system, and special effects seats.  The Shedd Aquarium is located on the Museum Campus with The Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum at the northern end of the Chicago Park District’s Burnham Park, across from the southern end of Grant Park.  Certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums like the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Brookfield Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium is also a Smithsonian Affiliate.

The founder and eponym was John Graves Shedd (1850-1926), one of Marshall Field I’s protégés.  He was President of Marshall Field & Company from 1906 to 1923 and served as the first Chairman of the Board of Marshall Field & Company from 1923 to 1926.[1]  He provided an endowment of $3,250,000.  The Shedd Aquarium Society incorporated on Monday, February 11, 1924.  Stanley Field, the President of The Field Museum of Natural History, was the first Secretary of the Shedd Aquarium Society.  George Frederick Morse, Jr., who had been the Chicago Zoological Society’s first Director of the Brookfield Zoo from 1923 to 1926, became the first Director of the Shedd Aquarium in 1926.  As associate director, Walter H. Chute, a self-taught fish expert, visited aquariums across the United States and Europe on a fact-finding mission before ground was broken, and the Shedd Aquarium still has his small notebook with information and intricate diagrams.  Chute worked closely with the architects when he returned in 1926, and subsequently supervised the installation of machinery and oversaw construction of the galleries.

The architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White designed the building.  [This was the same firm that designed The Field Museum.]  The groundbreaking occurred on Wednesday, November 2, 1927.    In 1928, Chute had been promoted to director, and he would hold the post until 1964.  The public preview occurred on Thursday, December 19, 1929 – just after a blizzard had blanketed the city and two months after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression – the Shedd Aquarium had a preview for the public.[2]  In 1930, twenty railroad cars made eight round trips to carry 1,000,000 gallons of seawater from Key West.  The Shedd Aquarium opened on Thursday, May 8, 1930.  Professor Sally Kitt Chappell opined, “The Shedd Aquarium, a triumph of design, is Chicago’s most brilliantly sited building.”[3]

The founders of the Shedd Aquarium were inspired by the popularity of the temporary aquarium in the Fisheries Building designed by Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931) for the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) and the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Aquarium & Fish Hatchery, which existed from 1923 to 1936, as well as other aquariums in distant cities. Of course, when the Shedd Aquarium became operational in 1930, it made the Lincoln Park Zoo Aquarium obsolete, because the larger Shedd Aquarium could house saltwater as well as freshwater fish.

Before the Oceanarium was built, the Shedd aquarium was surrounded on all sides by a terrace that reflected the original building’s octagonal shape.[4]  The original building is octagonal in shape as if it were a “Greek cross, with the sections between the arms filled in,” though the arms of the cross extended out to the north, south, east, and west, beyond the parts that appear “filled in.”[5]  Professor Kitt Chappell referred to the design as “A Greek cross within an octagon within a circle.”[6]

The main entrance is the western arm of the cross.[7]  The portico is tetrastyle in antis, which is to say there are four columns flanked by two engaged columns (or in this case piers).  The free-standing piers are fluted and belong to the Doric order. [8]   Each column is capped by an abacus.  The interior of the entrance wing is dominated by a lobby, while the other three arms of the cross housed two exhibit galleries each, for a total of six galleries.[9]  At the center of the cross, directly over the rotunda, is a low octagonal tower that is capped by a pyramidal roof. [10]  In 1931, the year the last room was finished, the Shedd Aquarium was visited by 4,690,000 people.

The previous year, 1930, Shedd’s daughters, Helen Shedd Reed Keith and Laura Shedd Schweppe, provided an additional $400,000 for the Shedd Aquarium’s first animal collection. In 1938, Mary Shedd provided a $1,500,000 endowment.  Helen Shedd Reed Keith helped fund the construction of the Shedd’s Aquatic Education Center, which was named in her honor, and opened in 1975.  John G. Shedd’s grandson, John Shedd Reed, Sr. (1917-2008), a veteran of the Second Great World War who had a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Yale University, would later join the Board of Trustees in 1961 and serve as President of the Board of Trustees of the John G. Shedd Aquarium from 1984 to 1994, in addition to being Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Santa Fe Industries.

William P. Braker, Director of the Shedd Aquarium from 1964 to 1993, was the first biologist to run the institution, and, in fact, the first college graduate to work there.  Under his leadership, Shedd renovated exhibit galleries, the Caribbean Reef replaced the Central Tropical Pool in the rotunda in 1971, the Aquatic Education Center opened in 1975, the Shedd acquired a research vessel to collect specimens and carry out scientific expeditions, and he brought in architect Dirk Lohan to design the Oceanarium.   “It was Bill Braker who could see the winding trails and hear the whales long before they existed here,” according to John Shedd Reed.   As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (A.Z.A.), Braker helped establish the industry’s first standards of practice. In 1999, the A.Z.A. presented Braker the prestigious R. Marlin Perkins Award for his lifetime achievement.

In 1971, the 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef, which is home to 250 Caribbean reef animals, replaced the central tropical pool in a $1,200,000 project. The mix of animals include sharks, eels, and a sea turtle. Five times a day, a diver hand-feeds the animals. The diver talks to guests through an underwater microphone. Caribbean Reef is one of the spaces in the Shedd Aquarium that can be rented for weddings and corporate parties.

Lohan Associates designed the Oceanarium Addition (1991).[11]  Opening in 1991, Shedd’s Oceanarium nearly doubled the facility’s size.  Built on 1.8 acres of lakefill, it covers 170,000 square feet and was the first building expansion in Shedd’s history. It was designed by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe. Beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters and other mammals could be seen living in a recreation of a coastal ecosystem.  As of September 15, 2010, Dirk Lohan owns 45.5% of the ownership interest in the firm Lohan Anderson, LLC.[12]  Construction of the Oceanarium began on September 17, 1987. The Oceanarium opened to the public on April 27, 1991.

Ted A. Beattie served as President & C.E.O. of the Shedd Aquarium from 1994 to 2016.  In 1981, Beattie joined the Chicago Zoological Park (Brookfield Zoo) as associate director. Before his arrival at the Shedd Aquarium in 1994, he also worked at the Knoxville Zoological Gardens and the Fort Worth Zoo.  In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Beattie to serve on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.  Lyons/Zaremba Exhibit Planning & Design completed the Shedd Aquarium Master Plan and planned the renovation of the Caribbean Reef (1999) and Rotunda.

In 2005, Beattie received the R. Marlin Perkins Award.  On Wednesday, November 23, 2005, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia opened, and the Shedd Aquarium became the second-biggest aquarium in the world.  In 2012, the Marine Life Park opened in Singapore and the Shedd aquarium became the third-largest aquarium in the world.  Two years later, the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Hengquin, Zhhai, China opened and the Shedd Aquarium became the fourth-largest aquarium.

With Beattie at the helm, the Shedd Aquarium had two fundraising campaigns that took in almost $100,000,000.[13]  In 1996, Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will and EHDD designed a twenty-year Master Plan.  They designed the restoration of the Rotunda (1999), the Amazon Rising exhibit (2000), and the Wild Reef Addition (2003).[14]  EHDD worked with the Shedd’s internal design team on the design, management, and construction of the Shedd’s entrances, vehicular turn-around and drop-off points, Go Overboard! gift shop, and two exhibits: Amazing Rising and Wild Reef: Sharks at SheddAmazon Rising, which opened in 2000, depicts a year on the Amazon River floodplain, including the dry season, months of flooding, and receding waters. The 575,000-gallon exhibit Wild Reef , which opened in 2003, was a $45,000,000 project that simulates a Philippine coral reef that is home to stingrays and sharks.  Counting the coral polyps, the exhibit is home to about 1,000,000 animals. The Wild Reef exhibit is comprised of twenty-six interconnected habitats.  Over twenty sharks live in a 400,000-gallon floor-to-ceiling habitat. In a $79,000,000 project, the Shedd Aquarium renovated the Abbott Oceanarium (2009), which is home to beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, and penguins.  The Local Waters Gallery, which is devoted to over sixty species of Great Lakes wildlife, underwent renovations that finished in 2013.  It showcases what happens to native animals when invasive animals arrive. The Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research opened; the A. Watson Armour III Center for Aquatic Animal Health and Welfare opened; and the Teen Learning Lab opened.[15] Between 1994 and 2014, capital spending rose from $1,700,000 to $10,100,000.[16]  On April 9, 2015, the Shedd Aquarium announced that seventy-year-old Ted A. Beattie would retire in 2016.[17]

On January 6, 2016, the Shedd Aquarium announced that the Board of Trustees had elected forty-four-year-old Bridget C. Coughlin, Ph.D., as the next President and C.E.O. of the Shedd Aquarium, with her actual succession to Beattie to take place in the spring.[18]  Dr. Coughlin had been Vice President of Strategic Partnerships & Programs and Adjunct Curator of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a 115-year-old institution that had 2,000,000 visitors in 2015.[19]

The Shedd Aquarium has over 32,000 living animals representing 1,500 species on site.  The number of visitors hovers around 2,000,000 every year, rising to 2,200,000 in 2012 and falling to 1,800,000 in 2014.[20]

The sponsors are Citadel, Coca-Cola, ComEd, the Dover Foundation, and United Airlines.  The address is 1200 South lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60605.  The phone number is (312) 939-2438.  The Website is https://www.sheddaquarium.org/.

oceanarium exterior with chicago skyline

Figure 1 Credit: John G. Shedd Aquarium Caption: This is the John G. Shedd Aquarium’s Abbott Oceanarium on Lake Michigan, with the Chicago skyline in the background, at sunrise.


[1] Shedd was also Chairman of the Board of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway, Director of the Illinois Central Railroad, and one of the forty-nine Governing Members and Trustee of the Chicago Zoological Society.

[2] Sally A. Kitt Chappell, Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1912-1936. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1992), p. 231

[3] Kitt Chappell, p. 229

[4] See the Shedd Aquarium Ground Floor Plan, provided as an illustration in Kitt Chappell, Architecture and Planning, p. 12

[5] Landmarks Preservation Council and Service, p. 21

[6] Kitt Chappell, Architecture and Planning, p. 13

[7] Landmarks Preservation Council and Service, p. 21

[8] Landmarks Preservation Council and Service, p. 21

See also Kitt Chappell, Architecture and Planning, pages 10, 11

[9] Landmarks Preservation Council and Service, p. 21

[10] Landmarks Preservation Council and Service, p. 21

[11] AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition. Edited by Alice Sinkevitch. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, and London: Harcourt, Inc. (2004), p. 48

[12] Public Building Commission of Chicago, Exhibit B, Disclosure Affidavit, Architect of Record, Edgewater Branch Library, PS1862

The other two principals are Lloyd D. Anderson, who owns 45.5% of the ownership interest, and Basil W. C. Souder, who owns 9% of the ownership interest.

[13] Brigid Sweeney, “Shedd Aquarium president to retire,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 9 April, 2015 (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150409/NEWS09/150409788/shedd-aquarium-president-to-retire) Accessed 01/03/18

[14] Sinkevitch, p. 48

[15] Brigid Sweeney, “Shedd Aquarium president to retire,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 9 April, 2015

[16] Brigid Sweeney, “Shedd Aquarium president to retire,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 9 April, 2015

[17] Shedd Aquarium, “Shedd Aquarium President/CEO Ted A. Beatttie to Retire,” 9 April, 2015 (https://www.sheddaquarium.org/About-Us/Press-Room1/Press-Releases/2015-Press-Releases/Ted-Beattie/) Accessed 01/02/18

[18] Shedd Aquarium, “Shedd Aquarium Trustees Elect Bridget C. Coughlin, Ph.D. as President & CEO,” 6 January, 2016, p. 1 (https://www.sheddaquarium.org/About-Us/Press-Room1/Press-Releases/2016-Press-Releases/Coughlin_CEO_2016/) Accessed 01/03/18

[19] Shedd Aquarium, “Shedd Aquarium Trustees Elect Bridget C. Coughlin, Ph.D. as President & CEO,” 6 January, 2016, p. 1

[20] Brigid Sweeney, “Shedd Aquarium president to retire,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 9 April, 2015 (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150409/NEWS09/150409788/shedd-aquarium-president-to-retire) Accessed 01/03/18


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