Monday, November 23, 2009

Otters, Sting-Rays, and Whales-- Oh My!

I'm going to take a leap now out of my usual pounding-the-pavement-neighborhood exploration and venture into some fishier waters, specifically those of the world's first inland aquarium, Shedd. How's that for a factoid? Before 1930 when Shedd Aquarium opened, other such facilities pumped salty ocean water out of their backyard and into their tanks. The first salty tanks at Shedd were filled with seawater trucked in on a railroad car. One of the first star exhibits featured a single neon tetra-- a tiny fluorescent fish now common to many home aquariums; in this pre-television era, Chicagoans, and other visiting Midwesterners lined up by the thousands and waited for hours to catch their first glimpse of ocean life. It's a long way from beluga whales-- but it was quite a feat at the time.

Just like many Chicago buildings, if you pull open the doors of this place, a slew of Chicago stories pour out. The building's namesake himself is his own Chicago tale. John G. Shedd started as a stockboy at Marshall Field's, and eventually grew to become the company's second CEO, after Marshall Field himself. Shedd didn't live to see his fabulously ornate Neptunian Temple (look for Neptune's trident on the top of its dome) erected, but there is some speculation that the level of detail work on the building was meant to be in direct competition with Field's own legacy to Chicago-- The Field Museum, which sits next door. Built during the height of the depression, Shedd cost approximately 3 million dollars to build. Looking at its intricate details which all reference the building's contents--such as specially cast conch shell light fixtures andwave-like marble lining the halls, makes it clear that that kind of money wasn't chump change.

Today, Shedd's the most visited cultural institution in the city, and its easy to be lost in crowds of kids crowding up against the piranhas in the Amazon exhibit or the the eels in the Wild Reef, but for me, I still run into the ghosts of Chicago when I walk around this magical little ocean in the prairie.

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