Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home, More on the Shedd Aquarium

After exhausting the possibilities of the front rooms of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and pestering the staff for more information on the fixtures (they had none) and on any other old, original parts of the building (“this is it”), I resigned myself to buying a ticket. How could I come to the aquarium and not look at the fishes? That reminds me of the first time my son took his feet off the bottom and began to swim. He had his face stuck in the water with a mask on, arms outstretched and paddling to give him balance, agog with the tropical fish in the shallows of a beach on Kauai. He started swimming unconsciously to follow one or another of the brightly colored little beguilers and later popped up to declare “I’m the best fishy-looker!”

Oops, where was I? please excuse the digression. The fish, snakes, turtles… and ESPECIALLY the Beluga whales were awesome. I would come to the Shedd Aquarium even if there weren’t dusty old lights to gawk.

As I was leaving, I tried to get a few more pictures of the lights. I tried longer shots, tried climbing up on a ledge to get a better vantage point for seeing the octopus heads and was thinking about climbing on top of a trash can (at this point, having seen what I came for, it wouldn’t matter if I was kicked out, so what the heck?) when the friendly desk attendant who put up with my non-fish-related questions earlier came over and gave the squid eye. “What are you doing here, by the way, writing a book?” I told her about my interests. She was completely friendly (I had not yet climbed up on any trash cans) and waved me over to a set of large wooden doors. “There’s some more old lights. Let’s see if we can get you in here” she said. She popped her head through the doors and let me into the director’s office for a little treat. The ceiling still had two original pendants with cast bronze suspension hardware. By the by, all the rope details in bronze on the Shedd’s fixtures are highly original and unexpectedly naturalistic. The opaline shades are cast glass, like Lalique but of uncertain provenance, densely detailed with fish chasing fish among waves, corals and seaweed. The portrait behind the director’s desk, flanked by a pair of simple thistle-detailed sconces, is of Mr. Shedd who died shortly before the building was officially opened.

Now, as to the attribution of this group of lighting, I would make a tentative claim to the Sterling Bronze Co.’s authorship. That’s based solely on the arms of the sconces in the director’s office which correspond closely with other examples of the company’s work that I have handled. Contradictorily,  I read in a book on the Shedd Aquarium (in their gift shop) that the fixtures were made by the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago. I had also seen a note on the site of the company that worked on the exterior sconces that they were made by the Sterling Bronze Co. of Chicago. I can find no information on the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago and the Sterling Bronze Co. was based in NY. I give a bit of weight to the company that handled the exterior fixtures as SBC often signed their work. A restorer may have found the mark in the course of their work and simply guessed incorrectly at the city.

To stir up yet more murkiness into the waters, I have this small set of sconces in my collection, star fish pattern with seahorse paintings, that I bought along with a silver E. F. Caldwell bowl from an estate sale. E. F. Caldwell was the principal competitor of the Sterling Bronze Co.

Tantalizingly, there were banners in one of the exhibits, the backgrounds of which were blueprints of the building’s design. While they were in no way detailed enough to shed light on the Shedd’s fixtures, they suggest that the original drawings are extant and accessible to scholars. Maybe next time…

-David Calligeros

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