Chicago's Auditorium Theatre: 125 Years of Entertainment for All
In total, the Auditorium Theatre held more than 4,000 seats. Adler designed the theatre’s acoustics to allow the seats farthest from the stage to hear each performance clearly.
By 8:00 p.m. on May 4, 1886, Chicago’s Haymarket Square was bustling with as many as 3,000 people. They had gathered to support the city’s labor movement and hear its leaders speak.
The day before, policemen had killed union workers outside of the city’s McCormick Reaper Works as a crowd jeered the scabs who replaced them. Two days before that, tens of thousands had walked out on their jobs and paraded down Michigan Avenue, demonstrating for an eight-hour workday.
By 10:30 on the night of the 4th, the speeches in Haymarket were nearing their end. As the crowd thinned, nearly 200 policemen stormed the square. A dynamite bomb was thrown into their lines. The police responded with a confused volley through the spectators and their own ranks. Eight officers and an unknown number of bystanders were killed.
Just a small town in 1830, Chicago would grow into America’s second-largest city in 60 years. By 1850, half its residents had been born abroad. Those immigrants lucky enough to find jobs often worked long, dangerous hours in the city’s factories and mills. Many came home to squalid living conditions in the tenements of ethnic enclaves. Strikes and violence were commonplace.
Social and political division permeated the city. Even theater and entertainment were battlegrounds between the city’s capitalist, natural-born elite and its socialist working class. Workingmen’s orchestras, theater groups, and lectures were organized as politically motivated alternatives to their capitalist counterparts.
But from the smoldering social tension of the time, plans emerged for a building that would be the catalyst for Chicago’s ascension to one of world’s great cities. Just four weeks after the Haymarket Affair, Ferdinand Peck, one of the city’s richest and most prominent figures, announced his plans for Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.
The massive structure would host opera, concerts, speeches, and other entertainment, but unlike conventional venues in places like New York and Paris, it would cater to every stratum of Chicago society, the workingman in particular.
“Ferdinand Peck had this idea that the arts could be a unifying bridge for the people of Chicago,” says Brett Batterson, the Auditorium Theatre’s current executive director. In Peck’s mind, the project was more than just a response to recent social unrest; it was a way of uplifting the city as a whole.
At the time, it was a social revelation. “I think the Auditorium Theater was the first time,” Batterson adds, “certainly in Chicago, where someone thought, ‘Let’s build one house and make it for everyone.’”
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan accepted the task of creating the Auditorium Building and its theater. They considered Peck’s egalitarian view in every facet of their design.
The main entrance to the Auditorium Building’s hotel. Though the hotel and office space were supposed to help support the theater’s operating cost, the reverse became reality. Newer buildings with more amenities made the hotel’s accommodations obsolete.
Construction began at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Street -- where the modern Loop meets Grant Park -- in January of 1887. The theater’s views and acoustics, still revered today, were designed to be as beautiful in the top seat of the upper balcony as they were in the first row. Access to the balcony, where ticket prices were often as low as casual pocket change today, was through the main house and staircase, used by even the most affluent of guests. The number of aisles was maximized to provide a large number of desirable seats to the general public, and rows were staggered to minimize reflection of sound back to the stage.
Although Peck opposed any boxes for the wealthy, 40 were eventually included. They were, however, set back from the stage and placed on the sides of the gallery, leaving the most desirable seating still open to the general public. The boxes sat only 200 -- less than five percent of the theater’s total capacity.
The cost of entertainment was to be subsidized by rents from 136 offices, a 400-room hotel, and shops and restaurants, all incorporated into the Auditorium Building itself. The additional revenue they generated would allow ticket prices to remain accessible to the working man.
“I think Louis Sullivan took [Peck’s democratic ideals] to heart,” Batterson says. “And then of course, ornament-wise, the theater is just unbelievable -- Sullivan’s genius at the highest.”
Though simpler than its New York and European counterparts, the theater was adorned in what was recognized by one visitor as “a decorative art that [is] truly American, and that owe[s] nothing to any other country or any other time.” Some of the ornamentation was created by Sullivan’s young protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright.
“Louis Sullivan used shapes found in nature as a motif for certain elements; Frank Lloyd Wright was very geometric,” Batterson explains. “You can go through our building today and see what Frank Lloyd Wright did and what Louis Sullivan did.”
But for all its beauty, the structure’s most impressive elements may lie in its engineering.
When it was completed in 1889, the Auditorium Building was the first entertainment venue in the world to have air conditioning (requiring 15 tons of ice daily), and was the tallest structure in Chicago. The theater was also the first with all electric lighting (3,500 bare light bulbs in all) and had 26 hydraulic lifts to raise and lower parts of the stage.
The structure was also the heaviest ever built, which is particularly impressive considering that it was placed atop a massive timber raft that rested on the Lake Michigan mud and swamplands.
“They wanted to make a statement [with the building] that Chicago was a world-class city even to rival New York,” Batterson says.
They did just that.
The theater’s grand opening on December 9, 1889 hosted both President Benjamin Harrison and Vice President Levi P. Morton -- the first time a president and vice president had been simultaneously drawn from Washington while Congress was in session. So impressed with the result of the combined efforts of Peck, Adler, and Sullivan, Harrison reportedly turned to Morton during the festivities to quip, “New York surrenders, eh?”
Adler designed the theatre’s arched ceiling to carry sound to the back of the upper balcony. Louis Sullivan and his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright conceived of the naturalist murals and geometric ornamentation that decorates the chamber.
Two weeks later, Harrison convinced Congress to award Chicago with the 1893 World’s Fair. The Columbian Exposition, as it was known, propelled Chicago into the world spotlight. The city was never the same.
Though it was brilliant in both concept and construction, the Auditorium Building didn’t necessarily fill the exact role Peck had planned for -- at least not right away. While events were popular, much of the working class could not afford the streetcar ride to the theater on a regular basis. The venue did generate the world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Grand Opera Company, as intended, but the symphony -- never happy with the oversized space -- left in 1925.
By the time the opera left in 1929, the building had begun to struggle. Its offices were overshadowed by newer construction, and the hotel, with its shared bathrooms, lost appeal as new structures offered private accommodations for guests.
“What really happened was where Peck thought the hotel and the office tower would support the theater,” Batterson explains, “the theater supported the office tower and the hotel for the first three decades, until the whole enterprise collapsed in 1941.”
With $400,000 in debt and a war on, the site was converted in 1940s into the Chicago version of the USO. Its stage became a massive bowling alley for troops in transit. When the war ended in 1945, the theater was abandoned. The building’s hotel and office space became the campus of the newly founded Roosevelt University.
The theater sat dark until 1963 when a university board member began a capital campaign for its restoration. Against all expectations, she raised more than $3 million. The venue reopened on Halloween night, 1967. It’s been going strong ever since.
Tonight, the Auditorium Theatre will celebrate its 125th anniversary (with ticket prices as low as $12.50 per seat). The 90-minute show will include the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago that once called the theater home, as well as acts representing each phase of its function from the 1960s on. Patti LuPone will sing a Broadway tribute, especially fitting, since her great grandaunt, Adelina Patti, sang at the theater’s opening in 1889.
“I actually think that today, we’ve figured out how to translate Peck’s ideas into the 21st century,” Batterson says of the theater’s current function and offerings. “We do programming of the highest quality that represents all of the different communities of Chicago. “
Israeli symphonies, Russian ballet, and Mexican theater, among others, all pack the house. But Batterson and his team have begun to see increasing crossover between their crowds.
“We have presented the American Ballet Theatre here,” he explains, “and they came backstage and said ‘Wow! We have never seen this diverse of an audience at a ballet performance before.’ We’re helping cultures overlap and begin to appreciate different kinds of art forms.”
As for the next 125 years? With continued attention to its physical well-being, and dedication to its founding principles, the building will continue to represent a democratic ideal and an architectural style unique to the city of Chicago.
“The beauty of the building, the grandeur of the architecture, speak to the highest ideals of man,” Batterson says. “It speaks to man’s quest for beauty, man’s quest for enlightenment, and that’s what I think makes the Auditorium special.”
During World War II, the Auditorium Building was turned into Chicago’s version of the USO. Its hotel rooms were used to house veterans and active-duty servicemen, while its stage was converted into a bowling alley for R&R.