Chicago celebrated the Auditorium, an icon of the City’s architectural and engineering legacy, on December 9, 2014, 125 years after the first performance in 1889. A prized and flexible venue, the Auditorium hosted the National Football League (NFL) Draft 2015, April 30 to May 2. Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building opened in 2012. It was awarded the U.S. Chapter Grand Prix d’Excellence Award as a best real estate project in the nation in December 2014. It traveled (virtually) to Malaysia in May 2015 to compete internationally and was awarded the World Gold Prix d’ Excellence in the Purpose Built Category.
A century and a quarter separate construction of the two buildings, a span that covers some two-thirds of the City of Chicago’s history. The Auditorium Building established the fame of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, stood as the tallest building in the city, and helped bring the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to Chicago. While many Adler and Sullivan landmarks fell to the wrecking ball, the Auditorium survived due to superb design and fortuitous circumstances. It was purchased and repurposed by Roosevelt University in 1947. The following six decades witnessed a flight of population and commerce to the suburbs and the more recent revitalization of the central city. The south edge of the Loop became a multi-brand University campus with the Wabash Building as a new landmark.
Part I The Auditorium
Ferdinand Peck, a wealthy patron of the arts and a lover of opera, led a campaign to create a large and acoustically perfect theater. He believed a theater that would welcome both the city’s working class and the wealthy would help counter the social unrest of the 1880s, epitomized by the Haymarket riot/massacre/affair of 1886. It would provide all patrons with acoustic clarity and an unobstructed sight line for the grand spectacles popular at the end of the 19th century. Dankmar Adler had made his name as an innovative acoustic engineer with his 1879 design for the 1800 seat Central Music Hall on the southeast corner of State and Randolph. Adler and his new partner Louis Sullivan were commissioned by Peck to design the Auditorium, a multipurpose building with shops, restaurants, 136 offices, and a 400 room hotel. The income from these was expected to support the centerpiece of the project, the 4,200 seat Auditorium Theatre.
Adler and Sullivan succeeded in designing a complex and sophisticated structure at the cutting edge of contemporary architectural technology. It was the first entertainment venue in the world to have air conditioning, generated with 15 tons of ice daily. 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. They built one of the heaviest private buildings in the world on the mud and swampland of the Lake Michigan shore.
The theater, hotel and offices had to be made to fit together like a Chinese puzzle within a severely limited space. Hotel rooms and offices were squeezed between the theater and property lines. While the hotel and offices were to subsidize the theater, the latter was given priority in allocation of the available space. From the outset, the multipurpose project had to contend with economic and demographic change and the challenge of financial obligations.
While working on the design for the Central Music Hall, Adler realized that for the audience to hear a performance they must first be able to see the performance. The rise in seating within the Auditorium Theatre provides clear sight lines from the main floor to the galleries. The four staggered elliptical ceiling vaults keep the ceiling as low as possible, to avoid reverberations, without obstructing the view from the upper gallery. Sullivan’s treatment of the ceiling makes it the theaters most striking feature. Exposed light bulbs provide a mild sunlight effect to Sullivan’s gold and white palette.
The Auditorium anchored a row of hotels established to its south along Michigan Avenue. Despite Ferdinand Peck’s expertise in real estate, the Auditorium Association was surprised when the newly engaged hotel management informed them that the return they could expect from the new hotel was half the amount they anticipated.
By the mid 1890s, the lack of private baths in all but the best suites had become the hotel’s most serious deficiency. Revenue rose with the World’s Columbian Exposition and then declined with the Panic of 1893 and its aftermath. Construction of the Auditorium required substantial debt in addition to the capital invested by the owners. A dividend paid to the owners at the end of 1893 was the first and only one issued.
The departure of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Orchestra Hall in 1904 impacted earnings. Architect Benjamin Marshall had directed extensive redecorating and remodeling of the theater in 1910 to accommodate the Chicago Opera Company. Regardless, the Chicago Opera Company, a major tenant, departed to the Civic Opera Building in 1929 dealing a substantial blow to the Auditorium’s finances. The Great Depression proved disastrous to the revenue of the aging hotel. The building suffered from deferred maintenance and debt for back taxes. Revenues had never kept up with the tax burden. The Auditorium’s tax bill was $22,707.78 in 1890 rising to $145,289.25 in 1922.
In the first decades of the 20th century the owners had considered various schemes to make the hotel more profitable. Dankmar Adler had retired in 1895 and died in 1900. The Association now relied on Louis Sullivan, a stockholder in the Auditorium, for architectural advice to enhance profitability. Sullivan presented a most radical proposal: to demolish the theater and replace it with a twenty or twenty-two story addition to increase the capacity of the hotel to 900 rooms. He needed a boost to his sagging fortunes, reports biographer Robert Twombly, who then observes that Sullivan’s “willingness to aid in the demise of his most famous creation was a revelation of financial desperation.” It is interesting to speculate on the appearance of that Sullivan envisioned edifice.
The Chicago Auditorium Association only leased the land and the landlords objected to subsequent pleas to allow demolition to address the Auditorium’s mounting debt. The Association sued the landlords in 1923 to force changes in the lease to allow demolition. The landlords represented a trust. They were advised to reject this speculative proposal lest it result in adverse consequences for as yet unborn beneficiaries. The attorney opined that unavoidable disaster could not adversely effect their liability, but avoidable disaster could lead to their ruin.
The case eventually reached the Supreme Court with a ruling in favor of the owners. The Association went bankrupt in 1929 when its bonded debt came due and the landlords took possession. The Auditorium was saved from demolition when the landlords, its new owners, found that the $400,000 cost of demolition was greater than the value of the land.
The owners financed remodeling and renovation in 1932-33 in anticipation of business from the Century of Progress, but these improvements could not offset the loss in business due to the Great Depression. The Auditorium Building closed its doors in 1941 after its heat and electric power supply were cut due to long unpaid bills. In 1942 the City of Chicago took over the building as temporary housing and a service center for the military. The theater was turned into a bowling alley.
In 1947 Roosevelt University bought the land and the building. Before its rehabilitation, the Auditorium would suffer one more structural alteration. The widening of Congress Street in the 1950s to the edge of the Auditorium’s south facade required an arcade, a pedestrian sidewalk that cut through what had been the Louis Sullivan designed bar room. Payment for the associated easement allowed Roosevelt to settle its tax debt to the City.
The theater remained dark until an Auditorium Theatre Council capital campaign financed a restoration executed by Harry Weese and Associates. Weese knew and admired the work of Adler and Sullivan. Contrary to earlier studies that indicated that the building was in grave danger of collapse, Weese advised that the building was actually in reasonably good condition and that much of what had to be done was of a “cosmetic” nature. The Auditorium Theatre reopened in 1967.
Brett Batterson, the theater’s current executive director, believes that Auditorium programming translates Ferdinand Peck’s ideas into the 21st century – it is of the highest quality and represents all of the different communities of Chicago. The Auditorium is set apart as the only theater in the Loop that does a little bit of everything. For architecture critic Blair Kamin, the Auditorium is still vibrant; it “hosts an estimated 250 events a year from ballet to Broadway shows, from rock concerts to Sunday church services.” To celebrate its anniversary, the theater posted a YouTube memento “125 reasons why we love the Auditorium Theatre.”
If the Auditorium Theatre was filled to capacity from opera prima donna Adelina Patti’s performance in December 1889 to her great-grand niece Broadway actress Patti LuPone’s performance in December 2015, including days the theater was closed due to bankruptcy, renovation and bowling, the audience would total roughly 191,625,000. It is estimated that over 55 million people world-wide will view the actual draft at the Auditorium. Not bad exposure for a three day event.
Part II The Wabash Building
There is an extensive literature on the Auditorium Building. Here are a few on-line resources:
Jim Nedza and Mitch Sutton’s Designslinger (http://chicagodesignslinger.blogspot.com/) has illuminated and photographed some 400 Chicago buildings. They provide a series on the Auditorium Building that includes Supreme Reprieve, Auditorium Theatre, Auditorium Building Tower, Auditorium Dining Room, Ganz Hall, Arcaded Away and a 125th Anniversary Post.
The Historic American Building Survey of the National Park Service provides a detailed discussion of the Auditorium to 1980 with source materials available at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/il/il0000/il0091/data/il0091data.pdf.
Sponsored by Landmark Illinois and the Auditorium Theatre, art and architectural historian Rolf Achilles spoke on why the Auditorium’s innovative opalescent glass, mosaic and metal work made it the greatest building in the world in its time. An illustrated overview of his talk, The Significance of the Auditorium Building, is posted on Jyoti Srivastava’s Public Art in Chicago blog. Achilles full speech is at the end of the post.
Stan Neuman’s film L‘Auditorium Building de Chicago is posted on YouTube with English narration at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgoMXHkQjr4