Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home – Nudibranches

I had a few hours between meetings to explore the Shedd Aquarium, part of Chicago’s lakefront neoclassical cultural campus including also the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. The Shedd was conceived by John G. Shedd, designed by architect Philip B. Maher and opened in 1930 under the directorship of Walter Chute.

I walked over from the massive Conrad Hilton Hotel just a few blocks north. I was not principally interested in the live fish, dolphins, whales, eels and other marine life. My quarry was frozen in marble, bronze, and leaded capiz. I had heard that the Shedd had a program of notable nautical themed lighting that I wanted to see for myself.

The Doric portico has five entrances, with two revolving doors on each side of a central double door. The revolving door-surrounds and the entire double door are original. Unfortunately the original leaves of the revolvers have been replaced with anonymous modern doors. All of the original architectural details in stone and bronze are detailed with exquisite, nearly lifelike, and charming marine life. There is a riot of turtles, starfish, snails, lobsters, squid, skates, dolphins, jellyfish, and corals.

Under the portico, at the entrances, are a pair of tall bronze hexagonal wall lanterns. The backplates are in the form of starfish and the galleries have alternating crabs, squid, turtles, and seahorses. These were unfortunately “restored” recently, removing the weathered verdigris you can see on the rest of the exposed metalwork.

The revolving door surrounds, in addition to the seahorses and scallop shells, have grillework detailed with snail shells and starfish alternating in a fishscale pattern. I love snails. Snails are as beautiful and strange as they are generally unloved.

That reminds me of the giggle fits I’d get from my kids when I told them about Nudibranches. Nude! Nudi NUDE! Ha ha ha. There is a great slideshow on the New York Times website on nudibranches. Nudibranches are a type of snail that sheds its shell, and they are beautiful, which is slightly odd since most people think of the shell as the defining characteristic (and the most decorative one at that) of a snail.

The central double door entry surround in white marble has a pediment sculpture of two large toothy fish swimming among fan corals and a large scallop shell, about to chomp on small lobsters. The doors themselves are made of four bas relief panels depicting sea robins and angel fish. The castings are very finely detailed for architectural work, showing chased eyes and fins. These panels are bordered by imbricated sand dollars, rope twist, and (almost unbearably charming) petit turtles and starfish (I know, more starfish?).

Through these doors is the grand hall. This space is pretty well as it was 83 years ago. The marble wainscoting, the bronze and wood doors, and the original ceiling fixtures are largely intact. Directly overhead are three stunning lanterns with leaded capis shell bodies grasped by lifelike bronze octopuses*.  The two on the sides have tapering hexagonal bodies. The center is a large sphere. These are just the coolest things. I am 100% ready for a commission to light an aquarium.

There are a few large double tiered chandeliers that illuminate the main space with exposed lamps and panels of painted glass. The glass is painted of course with sea life (frogs, snails, fish, turtles, lobsters, crabs, etc.)

The revolving doors are boxed out in the interior with more amazing cast bronze grillework and paneling detailed with starfish, corals, lobsters, and jellyfish.

In the right and left sides of the back of the main hall, hanging from the arches that give onto the first tanks of live exhibits are these dolphin-detailed signs.

Hanging from the center archway is a bronze clock. The clock faces and circumference are glazed in white glass, overlain with small cast creatures, in the place of numbers. In the Shedd aquarium, time is not simply 10:20…  this clock will read Crab’o’frog ‘o’ clock or half-past the squid . Time for a snack of plankton and sea cucumbers! Meet you in the cafeteria?

Under this clock are a facing pair of wall sconces in the shape of large stingrays, their heads facing down and their tails curling up to support nautilus shell shaped light shades made of leaded capis shell panels.

For the record, I really don’t mean to be flippant about the descriptions of this material. It is unbelievably fine and beautiful and fun. I only wish there were less repetitious ways to describe it all while also being exhaustive in its cataloging.

Around the periphery of the Caribbean Reef exhibit room are a set of torchieres with leaded nautilus shell shades matching the stingray sconces described above. The shades are held on lacy, five-legged stanchions of twined seaweed, the bases of which are plump starfish.

Lastly, in a side lobby to a reception desk, are a set of pendants with curved leaded glass shades with cast bronze superstructures. The work on these is on par with the design and execution of the rest of the fixtures, but shockingly I can make out no overt watery references. I suppose I’ll have to settle for just plain old and well-made.


-David Calligeros


*The English language plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi. If Octopus had a Latin root, perhaps one could make that claim. However, octopus is a Greek-rooted word and if one was inclined to such things the Greeklish plural would be something like octopodes.

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