Chicago museums: belugas, art, a 'smart house' and splendor of the Gilded Age
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT) - How do you get seven beluga whales from Chicago to Connecticut?
"FedEx" was Roger Germann's quick answer.
Germann is the spokesman for the Shedd Aquarium, which had to move its seven belugas and four dolphins in September before starting a restoration project at its Oceanarium.
"We put them in custom-designed transport cradles with hammocks suspended over water and took them to the airport," Germann said. "We FedEx'd them to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. The whole thing took 12 hours."
The whales and dolphins, plus five sea otters shipped to the Minneapolis Zoo, will be on their way back to Chicago in time for the May 22 reopening of the Oceanarium.
Also in May, The Art Institute of Chicago will unveil its Modern Wing. The institute is raising its general admission price to $18 from $12 on May 23, but admission will be free May 16-22 to give the public a look at the new wing.
Add the retooled Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry and the new Driehaus Museum, which shows off the interior of an incredible mansion built during the Gilded Age, and even veteran visitors to Chicago will have fresh vistas to explore this summer.
"The new Oceanarium is worth the trip if you're from out of town," said Michael Delfini, the Shedd's senior vice president. "It's a completely new space."
The project began when the aquarium decided that its 3 million-gallon Oceanarium pool needed a new coating of epoxy, Delfini said during a hard-hat tour last month. Ultimately, the entire Oceanarium received a face lift at a total cost of $50 million.
This spring and in early summer, visitors will be able to watch marine mammal training sessions in the big pool, kind of like dress rehearsals for a show that will debut in July. "We created a new gate, stage left, that allows multi-species shows _ dolphins, belugas, sea lions, penguins, birds of prey," Delfini said. "They don't intermix; the belugas will come in, the dolphins will move out.
"But before, you could look out onto Lake Michigan, it was a big distraction. Now there will be a curtain with a projection system that will show beautiful seascapes of where these animals came from. The show we're going to do, nobody's ever done before. All we had before was a basic sound system."
Other improvements include a larger sea lion habitat and an expanded area where visitors can sit and watch belugas and dolphins underwater. The Oceanarium will have fish for the first time in a river exhibit with water rushing down to an estuary holding Northwest Coast species.
Kids will be able to explore a yellow submarine, dress up like penguins and get wet touching sea stars in a tidal pool at the Polar Play Zone, the Shedd's first permanent children's exhibit.
But what promises to be the most popular addition will be the "beluga encounter," where small groups will don waist-high waders and enter a pool holding the cream-colored whales. "Guests will take three or four steps down into the water, the belugas will swim up, guided by our animal-care staff," Delfini said. "You'll get to touch them. A beluga encounter is something else altogether."
The Grainger Beluga Encounter Habitat and Experience will require reservations and an additional ticket.
Architect Renzo Piano designed the $300 million Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his work is as beautiful as the art that was being carted in during my walk though the building. White oak floors, white walls and glass-lined staircases give the sun- and shadow-filled space an airy lightness. "To let it levitate" is how Piano described it.
Walls of windows look out on the Chicago skyline and a 620-foot pedestrian bridge, with a design inspired by the hull of a boat or a sleek racing shell, that crosses over Monroe Avenue and leads to the hugely successful Millennium Park.
Covering the wing is a roof that Piano describes as "a kind of flying carpet made of aluminum leaves that perform the same job as the tree canopies all around the park."
Louvres on the roof work like a sun screen. The cantilevered blades are controlled by an automated dimming system that adjusts to fluctuations in daylight. Natural light fills the third floor of the building. The result is consistent light levels in the galleries and a lower electric bill.
The first floor will house a museum shop, information center and galleries showing photography and electronic media. The second floor is devoted to contemporary art and to galleries for architecture and design. The third floor features European painting and sculptures since 1900, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Brancusi and Giacometti.
The new wing is the centerpiece of a building project that will reorganize the entire museum by next year and increase gallery space by 35 percent. Many of the reinstallations are complete, including a new, colorful space for the Asian collection that opened up long-covered windows to add natural light. In some galleries, decorative arts have been installed side by side with paintings of the same period.
"We have closed gallery by gallery, reinstalling all the artwork, and brought up a lot of pieces we never had room for before," said spokesman Chai Lee. "We will have a gallery for American folk art, which we've never had before. Pretty much every space in the museum will be renovated. It's a huge project."
Some things in the updated Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry are so smart that it seems dumb not to have them. Like the water-saving, two-flush toilet. You flush it once for a light load, twice for a heavier one.
The three-bedroom home, which was constructed in a grassy courtyard on the east side of the museum, has native landscaping, roofs covered with heat-soaking greenery and decks holding containers planted with vegetables and herbs. Nearly every building material had a previous life. The walkways are recycled plastic bottles, the brightly painted dining room table was made from recycled steel by St. Louis artist John Beck, and the light fixtures above the table are made from recycled motorcycle parts.
The kitchen counter tops are 100 percent recycled glass, and the green glass tiles in the shower stall are recycled Chardonnay bottles. Presumably, they come in Pinot Grigio, too. Wastewater from the bathroom sink is used to flush the toilet.
A video monitor over the baby crib allows an anxious parent to look in on a child from anywhere in the house. The flat-screen Samsung TV in the family area can display whether the home is currently producing more energy, through solar film and its wind turbine, than it is using.
"The fireplace is from a company called Eco-Smart," spokeswoman Anne Rashford said. "There's no chimney. It's portable, burns ethanol. All heat stays in the room."
Rashford pointed out a cluster of four paintings hanging in a hallway and explained the abstract-looking design.
"A company called DNA 11 sent us a kit, we swabbed the inside of our mouths, and sent it back," she said. "They made these from samples of our DNA. You have colors to choose from. This is a family portrait. You have Mom and Dad and the two kids."
The museum also is featuring the world premiere of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which runs from April 30 to Sept. 27 and is the only Midwest stop for the show. While the kids are inside checking out Harry's wand and glasses, touring Hagrid's Hut or tossing a Quaffle, adults can inspect the Smart Home.
Maybe flush the toilet, once or twice.
Admission to the new Richard H. Driehaus Museum is a stiff $25, but you won't leave the 90-minute tour feeling shortchanged.
The museum is in the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, which was built from 1879 to 1883 and is a magnificent relic of America's Gilded Age. The house at 40 East Erie Street became known as the Marble Palace because of the extensive use of marble in its interior. The entry hall boasts 18 kinds of marble, onyx and alabaster covering nearly every surface.
Nickerson made his first fortune distilling alcohol during the Civil War. He built his mansion at a cost of $450,000, at a time when the average family was making $380 a year. The eight-bedroom house had a billiard room in the basement and a ballroom at the top, with lots of stained glass, shimmering mosaics and carved and inlaid wood paneling in between.
Nickerson sold the house after moving east in 1900. It was later bought by 100 prominent Chicagoans. They donated the building to the American Colleges of Surgeons, which used it as office space, a party venue and a fine-art gallery.
Chicago preservationist Richard H. Driehaus bought the house in 2003, and it underwent a meticulous restoration before opening to the public last November. All four floors were returned to the splendor of the late 1800s; a century of soot and pollution was removed from the exterior with a laser-cleaning process.
Driehaus (the name rhymes with tree house) is a collector of Tiffany lamps, windows, chandeliers, fireplace mantels, memorabilia and architectural artifacts. He installed part of his collection in the renovated home along with American furniture and European statuary and sculpture.
The result is an exquisite museum that displays the finest in American decorative arts and is a testament to the European craftsmen who immigrated to Chicago in the 19th century. Driehaus accurately describes the house as "a feast for your senses."
"There really is nothing left in Chicago like this," said David Bagnall, director of the museum. "It was a five-year restoration to try to bring it back. But the house did survive very well."
IF YOU GO:
SHEDD AQUARIUM: Tickets are $25 for adults and $18 for children 3-11. Call 1-312-939-2438 or visit www.sheddaquarium.org.
ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO: General admission for adults is $12, children 12 and over, students and seniors are $7. The general admission price for adults will increase to $18 on May 23. However, admission to the institute is free from May 16-22 for the unveiling of the new wing. Free evenings are Thursday after 5 p.m. Visit www.artic.edu.
MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY: General admission is $13 for adults, and $9 for children 3-11. To include the Smart Home, admission is $23 for adults and $14 for children. Harry Potter: The Exhibition requires a timed-entry ticket. Combination tickets for general admission and the exhibit are $26 for adults and $19 for children. Call 1-773-684-1414 or visit www.msichicago.org.
RICHARD H. DRIEHAUS MUSEUM: Admission is $25. Tours are limited to 10 visitors at a time on a first-come, first-served basis on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. No children under 12 are permitted; those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Call 1-312-932-8665 or visit www.driehausmuseum.org.
© 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.