Building the Building


As Jim Croft said to me one day, "The good news is that we inhabit a beautiful Daniel Burnham classical Chicago lakefront temple. The bad news is that we inhabit a beautiful Daniel Burnham classical Chicago lakefront temple."

So that posed a question for Jim and me. At the core: how do you take a building which is almost an artifact and is clearly an international architectural treasure and transform it into an efficient, sustainable, modern facility? The answer is you transform it over a period of years without shutting down substantial experiences for the visitors. So this is what we've done. The leader of this has been Jim Croft and I have clearly been in a supportive, enthusiastic role, but largely watching the process as it has unfolded.  

The first big step was deconstructing and rebuilding our central plant. The boilers were antiquated--straight out of the 1920s and because they were high pressure and we had to have constant 24 hour surveillance--and because they were big and cumbersome and inefficient, we were spending a lot of money without maximum efficiently. So we bit the bullet and undertook to excavate down 70 feet under the southwest terrace and parking lot to make space for the installation of a structure to house new state-of-the-art gas-fired boilers, ice-making equipment to take advantage of the lower nighttime utility rates, and a modern control room to ensure safe operations. We are still filling in the maze of HVAC fans and ducts to complete the job, but are most of the way there.   

Second was the construction of the Collections Resource Center. Thanks to a worldwide deployment of extraordinary scientific talent, we have added inexorably 1-2% to our collections each year for the last decade and that 1-2% translates into something like 500 new specimens every day. The Museum had filled in light wells but was fundamentally out of space. Many of the collections were dense packed, making scholarly access challenging. Many of the collections had been stored half a century ago and not been studied since. And if we were going to ensure temperature and humidity control, compactorization for efficient space utilization, digital records of the collections, and a massive inventorying and cleaning, we would need to undertake a move outside of the existing collections space. Well, several of the trustees pushed for acquisition of a remote location on the south or west sides of Chicago in warehouse space that was readily available. But as we talked with the curators, the impact of remote storage would have undermined the efficiency of curatorial access as well as the willingness of curators to probe the collection. We came to the conclusion that any expansion would be "on site."   

So that led us to exploring a replication of what we had done for the central plant under the southwest terrace but for the collections, and an extension of those terraces well to the south without noticeably destroying the classical symmetry of the Daniel Burnham south facade. We involved our trustee Bob Wesley, a partner Skidmore Owings and Merrill; the lead design architect at Skidmore, Adrian Smith; and as project architect, Peter Van Vechten to design the Collections Resource Center, and our new East Entrance providing ground-level wheelchair access and the main entrance for our school and camp groups. It was a massive undertaking. Our chairman at the time Ron Gidwitz invested his boundless energy in securing capital support from the State of Illinois. We sold bonds and raised some philanthropic dollars to undertake what emerged as a $70 million, 200,000 square foot, two-level facility for collections and laboratories.   

Walking into it today, I'm stunned by the shelving which was designed to fit the collection and allow for collections expansion; the rails which support the movable cabinets and shelving; the primary chemical fire suppressant vessels; the lighting; the ceiling height; the oversized storage; the cryogenic lab; the basketed wiring making it accessible for modification; the security system; the temperature and climate control, and all the elements that go into making this an extraordinary museum facility. And the curators became deeply involved--from the Zoology Department, its chair at the time Rudiger Bieler; from Anthropology Jonathan Haas, and many other curators. Through it all our construction general contractor Kath Associates and its leader Franz Cartwright, our engineering team, our in-house construction operations and maintenance group led by Ernst Pierre-Toussaint and so many others. It was a cooperative endeavor sometimes marred by serious conflicts but in the end a magnificent design and a brilliant construction job with restraining pipes inserted to hold the soil back while excavation proceeded, multiple layers of sand and gravel and concrete as the flooring, and a conclusion that will be viewed by few members of the public but provides me an inspiration every time I visit.   

There has been so much more over the years: structural, electrical, the installation of new showers for staff who bike to work or use our gym for their workouts during the day, the award-winning toilet facilities, the maintenance of our elevators, the closing of the two final light wells, the compactorization of the collections of the Searle Herbarium, the installation of solar panels, the endless re-roofing of our five acre roof, the installation of double-paned windows, the tuck pointing, the installation of recreational areas above the CRC and the sourcing of marble from China, the expansion of the bike room as our biking population has increased, the rebuilding of the loading dock, the installation of our new community garden on the northwest terrace, the construction of a Brachiosaurs outdoor replica enabling identification of the museum as a house of dinosaurs on the northwest terrace, the Belvedere exhibit of the Chicago skyline, the Olmec head at the northeast corner of the building, and endless repair and maintenance investment necessary in a facility of this size age and scope…

Much of this invisible, as it should be, to our visitors.