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A hulking mass of stone, Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre has, since its completion in 1889 amassed an impressive list of superlatives.
At the time, the theater, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., was not only the tallest building in the city, but also the largest and the heaviest. In fact, in addition to being the most expensive building in Chicago, it was also the largest in the country. Some opined that it was the largest, tallest and heaviest to be constructed since the Great Pyramids.
It was designed by no less than Adler & Sullivan in a style popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson, called, appropriately Richardsonian Romanesque.
And, to help prepare the reams of drawings required to build it, architect Louis Sullivan hired a young draftsman from Wisconsin named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Best of all, despite struggles over the years, the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., not only continues to operate, hosting concerts and other events, but it’s as beautiful as ever. And you can take a tour that will lead you through the lobby, the dressing rooms and other back of house spaces, the rows of seats, the opera boxes and even onto the stage.
The tour has long been on my to-do list and I’m happy to say I finally made it!
If you’ve spent time in Downtown Chicago, you’ve likely seen the hulk of a stone building, with its heavy rusticated stone, that fills half a city block. Though it’s often difficult to appreciate the full beauty of the building close-up, you’ll undoubtedly see the impressive ground floor arches on the Michigan Avenue and Ida B. Wells Drive sides (though there are even a couple on Wabash).
Good overall views, however, are best spied from the southeast corner of Michigan and Ida B., as well as from the top deck of the Congress Plaza Hotel parking structure across Ida B. Wells.
The building was the dream of Chicago real estate magnate Ferdinand Peck who was also a philanthropist and patron of the arts. The story goes that after the Haymarket Square riot in 1886, Peck’s urge to bring high art to the working classes kicked into high gear and he called on architects Adler & Sullivan to realize this vision. Less utopian folks think Peck just wanted Chicago to leapfrog New York as America’s cultural city.
In order to pay for what Peck wanted to be the world’s most impressive theater, he instructed Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan – among the fathers of the skyscraper – to design a structure that could house such a venue, but also fund itself.
Thus the architects drew (and re-drew and re-drew) an impressive $3.2 million (about $80 million in today’s cash) complex with not only a 4,200-seat theater and a 500-seat recital hall, but also 136 rentable stores and offices, and a 400-room hotel with accompanying amenities.
Because you can easily Google “Auditorium Theatre Chicago” and find copious sources that go into great detail on the construction of this gem, I won’t recount it all here.
Suffice it to say that Peck’s choice of architects was hardly lauded in the Windy City, even if his contemporaries were excited about the project.
“Peck’s trust in Adler & Sullivan was not share by many of the wealthyand influential businessmen who joined to finance the venture,” wrote Tim Samuelson in “Louis Sullivan’s Idea.”
“Some backers attempted to throw the project ot more experienced firms with stronger social and business connections, but Peck persevered, awarding Adler & Sullivan the coveted commission for what at the time was the largest building project in the country.”
But, Samuelson adds, Peck had to allow his financial partners some leeway and, “before construction began, the organizers felt compelled to have the preliminary design reviewed by the respected Boston architect and educator William R. Ware, who had headed MIT’s architectural program during Sullivan’s brief studies there.
“Ware not only approved the project but also reportedly commented that if Adler & Sullivan’s design had been his, he would have regarded it as the inspiration of his life.”
That inspiration was derived in some part from the work of the great Henry Hobson Richardson, whose personal stamp on Romanesque Revival architecture created a subgenre bearing his own name.
Richardsonian Romanesque was based on 11th and 12th century Western European architecture, with its impressive scale and weighty appearance, turrets and arches … lots of round arches, big and small. (Milwaukeeans, think of the Federal Building on East Wisconsin Avenue, for example.)
Richardson’s massive 1885 Wholesale Store for department store baron Marshall Field was the talk of the town at the time that Peck hired Adler & Sullivan and Sullivan – like many others – was especially wowed by it.
“Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store made as deep an impression on Sullivan as it did on his clients,” wrote Robert Twombly in “Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work.”
“Richardson’s aesthetic simplifications and powerful massings had already crept into Sullivan’s emerging style, but in 1886 his inescapable influence launched Sullivan on what was surely a Richardsonian rite-of-passage until found his own metier in the skyscraper at the close of the decade.”
Sullivan, as Twombly hinted, would later become known the “father of skyscrapers” – a title others could also claim – for his pioneering work in that area.
Because there was so much work to be done on the Auditorium design – or I should say “designs,” as the firm did a number of versions of the building for its clients, each requiring reams of sketches, renderings, floor plans and other drawings – Adler & Sullivan had to take on additional staff.
“One of the early newcomers was 21-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright,” Twombly wrote, “to develop Sullivan’s rough sketches or ornament into working drawings.”
Though according to my tour guide when I visited the theater, Wright visited later in life and took credit for all sorts of aspects of the design, there is, it seems, only one thing in the whole place that can be decisively attributed to the Wisconsin architect: a bronze newel post head in the main lobby.
Speaking of the main lobby, it’s an impressive place and it’s where your tour will begin.
To get to it, you pass through an enclosed vestibule where there are ticket windows. That area used to be open all the way out to the arches you see along the street.
It was altered (and steps removed, too) when the street was widened and lost its sidewalk. That led to the sidewalk taking over what used to be interior space the whole length of the block on Ida B. Wells Drive. Lost as part of this change was a much-lauded bar space.
There is lovely tiling, ironwork, marble and more arches galore. Above each of the entry doors is an original stained glass lunette that had be removed during a 20th century remodel. Fortunately, the panels were saved on site and could be re-installed later.
Stepping into the lobby you can’t help but notice a couple things.
First, it’s not at all like the grand lobbies we’ve come to expect in our classic theaters. That is likely due to the building’s masonry construction, which wouldn’t really afford the tall and broad open spaces that steel and concrete would soon bring to the scene. (Iron framing was used for the theater box.)
But the repeating stout pillars and arches feel appropriate to a Romanesque Revival building, recalling a crypt in a French Medieval cathedral or similar building.
On the right side is the entrance to the theater. On the left is the staircase up to the higher tiers (with Wright’s newel post).
The other thing you’ll likely notice immediately are the sloping floors, due to greater subsidence than expected, despite Adler’s skill and renown as an engineer.
The building is erected on former lake bed, our tour guide told us, and has seen subsidence of as much as 36 inches in some spots.
If not for Adler’s, ahem, groundbreaking floating raft foundation made of criss-crossed railroad tracks embedded in concrete, that slump would likely have been considerably worse. There’s no danger, but it’s definitely noticeable in the floors and in some features above, too, that slant dramatically.
The theater auditorium itself is a marvel; a true architectural gem of the country, if not the world.
It has a removable false proscenium, opera boxes (which used to be more enclosed, but lost their facades), three balconies and those iconic arched rows of lights belting the ceiling echoing the arches on the building’s exterior.
And, stats fans, the theater has 3,500 electric lights.
There are painted murals depicting spring and autumn; built-in wooden benches in seating areas that once had fireplaces; colored glass (some of it replaced with plastic); and lots of plaster and painted decoration everywhere.
The same is true in the staircases and the common areas.
Up in the top balcony, which may be a little vertigo-inducing for some, there are original monogrammed seats, which are super cool to see, but probably a little less than stellar when you’re deep into Act 3 of “Tosca.” Fortunately, the uber-straight backs and seats are cushioned.
Though it was built with 4,200 seats there are now just 3,877 thanks to renovations and reconfigurations.
Also for stats addicts, the building contains 17 million bricks, 55 million mosaic tiles and 25 miles of gas and water pipes.
It was the first building to have central air conditioning and the system required 15 tons of ice a day.
On the tour – which lasts up to about 90 minutes (and doesn’t include the remainder of the building, which is home to Roosevelt University) – you’ll see all of it and excitingly you’ll also get to go beneath the stage and see the dressing rooms (which replaced the ones stacked next to the stage and accessed by a winding staircase), one of the original stage lift piston mechanisms, the green room and similar spaces.
Then, you’ll finish on the stage, beneath the soaring fly loft, with its colossal rigging and the most pitch-perfect view of the Auditorium’s auditorium.
Standing center stage, gazing out at the tiers and boxes, it’s hard not to close your eyes and consider everything that’s taken place in this room.
Before it was even completed, the Republican National Convention was held in the theater in 1888 and Benjamin Harrison was nominated.
A little over a year later, Harrison returned as President to dedicate the building in a ceremony that also included a performance by opera diva Adelina Patti, who sang “Home Sweet Home,” eliciting a wild response from the crowd.
When the building opened Adler & Sullivan moved their offices to the 16th and 17th floors of the Auditorium tower.
The Congress Plaza Hotel across the street, which opened in 1893, was built as an annex to the Auditorium Hotel, which was very popular when it opened, as were the office spaces.
But that popularity did not endure and by 1941, the Auditorium Theater closed for more than two decades. The building was bought in 1947 by Roosevelt University, which considered turning the shuttered concert hall into parking for students.
But thankfully, that did not happen. Instead, the university leases the theater to an independent non-profit arts organization that has, since the 1960s, undertaken renovations and hosted operas, plays, concerts and other events.
The venue reopened in 1967. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places three years later.
Believe it or not, over the years, baseball games were held in the auditorium, which also served as a bowling alley during World War II as part of a USO Center.
Of course, it has also hosted countless performances of operas, concerts and the like, including appearances by John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Robeson, Liza Minelli, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Dave Brubeck, Liberace, Duke Ellington, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Nina Simone, The Who, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, B.B. King, Bob Dylan … this list just keeps on going. (The theater’s website has an impressive list, including the 10 times The Grateful Dead played there from 1971 to ’77.)
A 1921 performance of “Madame Butterfly” by the Chicago Opera Company was the city’s first such live radio broadcast.
During World War II the U.S. Signal Corps used the top three floors of the building’s tower to keep an eye on Lake Michigan and the city’s skies.
One of the most exciting events in recent years took place on Dec. 9, 2014, exactly 125 years to the day after the first concert was held in the venue (the one when Adelina Patti sang, “Home Sweet Home”).
On that day, nine years ago, Broadway legend Patti LuPone performed.
LuPone, who is the great-grand-niece of Adelina Patti, sang … “Home Sweet Home,” of course.
Auditorium Tours take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays at noon, and Thursdays at 6 p.m. You can find complete ticket and other information, as well as order tickets online, here.
(Vintage photos courtesy of Auditorium Theatre.)