Watch CBS News

On This Day 100 Years Ago: Field Museum Of Natural History Opens In New Grant Park Building

By Adam Harrington, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) -- On this day 100 years ago, crowds lined up for miles to visit the Field Museum of Natural History as it opened to the public in Grant Park.

The history of the museum dates back nearly three decades before it first opened in the building, and is intertwined with the history of another one of Chicago's most famous museums. The Field Museum – first known as the Columbian Museum of Chicago – had first opened on June 2, 1894 at the former Palace of Fine Arts from the World's Columbian Exposition the year before in Jackson Park.

But plans for a natural history museum for Chicago dated back a few years even before the World's Fair.

"In 1891, Harvard professor Frederic Ward Putnam, in town to help oversee anthropological exhibits at the exposition, exhorted members of the Commercial Club of Chicago to establish a museum using the objects that would be left over from the fair," the Encyclopedia of Chicago tells us. "An aspiring city like Chicago, Putnam argued, needed a major museum of natural history to compete culturally with East Coast cities, and Chicagoans agreed. When retail magnate Marshall Field offered a million-dollar check for the project, the Field Museum was born."

Marshall Field, of course, is the man whose name graced one of Chicago's most famous department store chains before it changed over to Macy's in 2006. After he donated that $1 million, the museum was quickly renamed the Field Columbian Museum in Field's honor.

The Field Museum points out that its collection began with items that had been on display at the World's Fair – including anthropological artifacts, geological specimens, and a botany collection.

"The Museum's earliest acquisitions included the Ward's natural history collection, the entire Tiffany & Co. gem display, a collection of pre-Columbian gold ornaments, musical instruments from Samoa and Java, and a large collection of Native American objects," the museum points out.

But museum researchers started going on their own field research projects – no pun intended – right away in 1894 to expand the collection, and the museum continued to grow. However, the old Palace of Fine Arts was rapidly deteriorating by 1905, and the museum decided it was time for a new location.

Plans for a new building were contained within the 1909 Burnham Plan for Chicago and were controversial from the start, the museum points out. Legendary planner Daniel Burnham had initially proposed for the museum to be built in the middle of Grant Park near what was then Congress Parkway – around the eventual site of Buckingham Fountain. But plans to build on the park were met with swift backlash, and a fight over the proposed site went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, the museum points out.

Initially, a new plan was launched to rebuild the museum in Jackson Park. But the plan was changed again when the South Park Commission acquired land just south of Roosevelt Road on the edge of Grant Park – where it was agreed the new Field Museum would be constructed.

Construction on the new building started in July 1915. Plans were altered in 1918 so the not-yet-finished museum could operate as a hospital during World War I, but the government canceled the contract before any soldiers were treated there, the museum pointed out.

Construction took almost six years and cost about $7 million – nearly $184 million in today's dollars by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' calculations. It took a year to build the foundation alone, and the foundation extends down 95 feet in some spots, the museum pointed out.

Meanwhile, moving the museum's collection was not an easy task. Beginning in March 1920, crews moved the collections on a five-mile northward trip by rail and horse-drawn carriage, the museum points out.

The new building was designed by architect Peirce Anderson of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. It was made of 350,000 cubic feet of white Georgia marble, and like the museum's previous home at the old Palace of Fine Arts, it happened to feature ionic columns and female figures called Caryatids in its exterior architecture.

The museum says its architecture was inspired by the Erechtheum on the north side of the Acropolis in Athens, as well as other Greek and Roman temples.

Inside, Stanley Field Hall amounts to half an acre of floor space, and its floor is made of 300 million-year-old fossilized limestone.

Maximo, a 122-foot-long titanosaur skeleton cast, is being installed in the Field Museum, in the spot once occupied by SUE the T-Rex. (Credit: Field Museum)

The grand opening for the new Field Museum came around on May 2, 1921.

Crowds lined up for miles in their best attire to visit the new museum – which at the time didn't have much around it.

Soldier Field opened just to the south a few years later – though it didn't become the home of the Chicago Bears until 1971. Meanwhile, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium both opened steps away from the Field Museum in May 1930. For decades, they were separated from the Field Museum by the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive, but those lanes were rerouted west of the museum in the late 1990s – forming what became the Museum Campus.

And back in Jackson Park, the Field Museum's old home at the former Palace of Fine Arts had its exterior architecture recast in limestone while its interior was completely overhauled in the Art Moderne style for a new museum established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. We have known it as the Museum of Science and Industry since 1933.

A century into its time 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., the Field Museum includes an assortment of exhibits with multimedia and interactive features – from the artifacts and treasures in the Cyrus Tsang Hall of China and Inside Ancient Egypt, to the immersive experience of seeing critters of the soil in giant size in the Underground Adventure. And of course, there's SUE, the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil skeleton that measures 40 feet long and is 90 percent complete.

SUE in new suite (c) Field Museum, photo by Martin Baumgaertner
(Credit: Field Museum)

The Field Museum has also expanded its work as a research institution over many years. The museum notes that its scientists continue to undertake active research of items in the museum's own collections, as well as conservation efforts in the Chicago area and around the world, document species that were previously unknown, and educate young scientists.

As the museum says on its website:

"Our more than 150 scientists and researchers travel to the far corners of the world in search of new discoveries and clues to what life was like hundreds, thousands, and millions of years ago. Every day we find new evidence of just how interconnected our world is, and we're working to build stronger communities to help preserve the planet for all the diverse life that makes Earth home.

"We ask big questions, publish groundbreaking research for the scientific community, and craft exhibitions to capture the imagination of a public who shares our passion for science that is just plain fun.

"Science is for everyone. And we can't wait to share it with you."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.