It’s easy to walk straight past Chicago’s Auditorium Building (1889) on South Michigan Avenue. Once the tallest building in the city, it’s now one of the magnificent group of structures that form the “streetwall” overlooking Grant Park.
The philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck (1848-1924), supported by such luminaries as Marshall Field (1834-1906) and George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), intended it as a major cultural centre and with a strongly egalitarian emphasis, following the bitter and tragic Haymarket Riot of 1886, which first provoked the celebration of May Day as a workers’ festival.
Peck wanted a civic auditorium that would provide equally good sight-lines and acoustics for every seat and, as originally conceived, no private boxes. Built at a cost of $3,200,000, it was one of the earliest American buildings to be air-conditioned and lit by incandescent electric lights.
The Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler combined in one structure a 4,300-seat auditorium, a speculative office block and a 400-room hotel. Adler designed a foundation raft of railroad ties (railway sleepers, in British terminology) and steel rails to support the ten-storey structure, with its seventeen-storey tower, on the deep bed of clay beneath.
Unfortunately, the weight of the load-bearing exterior walls led to spectacular settlement, in places over 2½ feet, so that to this day the lobby floor slopes perceptibly. Nevertheless, Sullivan & Adler’s practice moved into an office suite on the top floor of the tower, where the young Frank Lloyd Wright served his apprenticeship as a draughtsman.
The auditorium is magical: the ceiling arches are embellished with 24-carat gold leaf and the walls are elaborated stencilled to Sullivan’s designs. Albert Francis Fleury painted murals of Spring and Autumn on the side walls and Charles Holloway decorated the proscenium with forty-five life-size classical figures, all inspired by Louis Sullivan’s poetry.
The building has provided the venue for many milestones in Chicago’s cultural life: it hosted the Republican National Convention in 1888, the year before the building was completed; it was the venue for the debut of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891.
However, the Symphony Orchestra moved out in 1904 and the opera company followed in 1929. The office space proved difficult to sell because of the noise of the elevated railway on South Wabash Avenue, and the hotel failed to thrive because newer competitors featured en-suite bathrooms.
The only reason the building survived the 1930s was because it was too expensive to demolish. In 1941 the theatre company went bankrupt. During the war it was used as a servicemen’s entertainment centre, with a bowling alley on the stage and front stalls.
In 1947 the Auditorium Building was sold for $1 to the then Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University. The hotel rooms became classrooms and the former dining room became the college library. A group led by Mrs Beatrice T Spachner campaigned for the restoration and reopening of the derelict auditorium, which took place in 1967. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975, and a further, thorough restoration took place in 2001.
The Auditorium has a regular programme of performances – http://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/wb/pages/home/performances-events/performances.php – and Roosevelt University offers public tours of the building: http://auditoriumtheatre.org/wb/pages/home/education/historic-theatre-tours.php.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.