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Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre Celebrates 125 Years

By Ted Cox | December 1, 2014 5:41am | Updated on December 8, 2014 8:47am
 Views and details from the Auditorium Theatre, the last existing building Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler and Frank Loyd Wright all formally worked on.
Auditorium Theatre
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SOUTH LOOP — Chicago's so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, the Auditorium Theatre, celebrates its 125th birthday Dec. 9.

And to think the only reason it's still standing is that in the early days of the Great Depression the land, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway, wasn't worth the cost of tearing it down.

Even so, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, as it's formally known now, remains vital, as the  home performance space of the Joffrey Ballet since its move to Chicago in 1995, and as a concert hall known for its clear sightlines and acoustics.

It has welcomed acts from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, David Bowie and the Grateful Dead in the late '60s and early '70s to Paul Simon, Erykah Badu, Wilco and Bob Dylan & Merle Haggard (in a 2005 double bill) in this century.

 The overall building is now owned by Roosevelt University.
The overall building is now owned by Roosevelt University.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

It even once hosted a closed-circuit TV broadcast of the 1988 heavyweight battle between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks.

The last surviving building that architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler and their young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright all formally worked on, according to the theater's current Executive Director Brett Batterson, it still plays host to 250 events a year, including the Willow Creek church service Sunday mornings.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already declared Dec. 9 "Auditorium Theatre Day," and it will hold a gala performance that night spanning the spectrum from ballet to opera to show tunes, with Steppenwolf Theatre trouper John Mahoney as host.

Yet for now let's go back and place the Auditorium in its honored place in Chicago history.

The Auditorium sits on what was the southernmost reach of the Great Chicago Fire along Michigan Avenue in 1871. (Batterson said city officials dynamited buildings just to the south across Congress in order to form a buffer to protect the mansions on Prairie Avenue.)

A mere 14 years later, Chicago businessman and philanthropist Ferdinand Peck set out to replace the city's reigning music hall (a wood structure) with an opera house to rival anything in New York City.

Conceived in the city's turbulent labor environment of the Haymarket riot in 1886, the Auditorium was imagined by Peck as a meeting place for the working man and the well-to-do. The Adler & Sullivan firm was commissioned to design it, and — in marked contrast with European opera houses — they moved the boxes for the quality to the sides, leaving unobstructed views for hoi polloi on the four levels of seats down the center.

It was the first major building with a multi-use design, connecting the theater to a hotel and an office tower expected to be the main sources of income.

When it opened on Dec. 9, 1889, it was Chicago's tallest building, with the tower reaching 18 stories (the Adler & Sullivan offices were on 16 and 17), and the largest in the nation, taking up half a city block and with a weight estimated at 110,000 tons.

It was the first all-electric theater, and Sullivan went wild with 3,500 bare carbon-filament light bulbs (invented only years before) in the theater alone. It was also the first air-conditioned theater, with fans blowing across blocks of ice (15 tons a day) and out through huge vents to the sides above the stage.

To this day, the design readily accommodates audiences of three different sizes: 1,500 on the main floor and in boxes, 2,600 when the first balcony is opened and a total of 3,889 when the second balcony and gallery are opened.

The murals, painted by Albert Fleury, depict spring and winter to the right and left walls of the auditorium, with an allegory meant to suggest the passage of a lifespan (unconventionally running from right to left, thus spring to winter) above the stage. The lobbies include inglenooks, which would become a Wright hallmark, for the audience to mingle in during intermissions, and like many areas of the theater they have ornamental designs mixing Sullivan's organic forms with Wright's more geometrical shapes.

Built on marshland, its foundation was based on a "raft" of railroad ties, steel rails, pitch and concrete. It eventually settled about three feet lower, resulting in the steps down from street level to the box office and the sometimes slightly listing floors of the lobby.

Yet it created such a sensation upon its debut, it led to Chicago being selected for the 1893 world's fair that would become known as the Columbian Exposition (see the third star on the Chicago flag), and it was the city's reigning performance space for decades. Wright himself called it "the greatest room for music and opera in the world — bar none." Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous "We Stand at Armageddon" speech there in his bid to reclaim the presidency in 1912.

Yet, in some ways, the overall building was almost instantly obsolete. The hotel had shared bathrooms, and city visitors soon developed a preference for the private baths that came to be standard in newer hotels. The office tower was soon dwarfed by other buildings as Chicago developed its reputation as birthplace of the steel-frame skyscraper.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra moved up Michigan Avenue to its own building, Orchestra Hall, in 1904, and the Grand Opera followed with its move to the Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive in 1929. Owners took estimates for demolition in the early '30s, but deemed it not worth it. The theater went bankrupt and dark in 1941.

The city took it over the following year and used it as a servicemen's center in World War II, accommodating an estimated 2.2 million visitors who were housed, fed and entertained there (including the Auditorium stage area and the first few rows of seats being converted into a bowling alley).

The nascent Roosevelt University claimed the building in 1946, but the theater remained dark until Beatrice Spachner led a $3 million restoration effort in the mid-'60s. It reopened on Halloween night in 1967 with a performance of the New York City Ballet's "Midsummer Night's Dream," and it has remained one of the city's treasured performance spaces ever since.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" ran there in 1971, and Bruce Springsteen played there in his pre-stadium days in 1977.

So Happy Birthday, Auditorium Theatre. Just be glad no one knew how to bring down a building with a cheap and easy single series of timed explosions back in the early '30s.

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