On December 9, 2019, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago turned 130 years old. Built in 1889 by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the theater was the first home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the early Chicago opera companies. Today, the Theatre still hosts ballets, orchestras, musicians, etc. Additionally, because of its interesting history, and more likely because Louis Sullivan is considered a famous architect, the Theatre frequently offers tours. Most of the people on my small tour were French tourists who did not know each other, which makes me suspect that architecture receives a larger emphasis there than in the United States.
I went on the 1 ½ hour tour of the Auditorium Theatre with an extremely knowledgeable guide. He made it more interesting because of his personal connection with the Theatre. After World II, in 1945, Roosevelt University came into existence. It purchased the Theatre building, but did not open it to the public. However, in 1960, the University began raising funds to restore the Theatre. During the 1960s, my tour guide heard about the fundraising campaign and asked his mother if they could contribute. They did, and he then received a letter thanking him for being one of the youngest donors. As a reward, he was given a personal tour of the Theatre. In 1967, when the Theatre reopened to the public, he and his mother attended the performance. He has seen every show offered there since.
That was the history of the Theatre during the second half of the 20th century, however, the first half is also interesting. Although Adler and Sullivan did not build the first skyscraper, they are considered pioneers in the skyscraper’s development. Additionally, they helped influence future architects, such as the more famous Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked under Sullivan at the beginning of his career.
When the Theatre opened in 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison came to its opening. The Theatre was considered grand at the time, as it seated 4,200 and had a 10-story hotel above it. Its reputation helped Chicago win the bid to host the 1893 World Fair. Some of the famous people to perform or speak at the Auditorium Theatre have been President Theodore Roosevelt, Civil Rights activist Booker T. Washington, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. The Theatre somehow held a few baseball games during its early years, and during World War II, the government used it for U.S. soldiers, and a large portion of the auditorium became bowling alleys.
The two most fascinating aspects of the Theatre to me were the lighting and the sinking floor. Because electricity was new at the time that the Theatre was built, the auditorium contains 3,500 lightbulbs total. It was a great way to show off this new invention. Originally, the entire Theatre used carbon lightbulbs, however, they are not as bright as the bulbs used today, so only the main part of the auditorium uses them now, while the hallways use more standard lightbulbs. Carbon lightbulbs actually last longer than the current ones, but I cannot remember the number of years.
Chicago used to be a swampy area, so the ground is not solid. The architects knew this and took precautions when building the Theatre’s foundation. However, over the years, the perimeter of the building has sunk deeper in comparison to the rest of the building. This was especially noticeable in the Theatre’s lobby, where the ground sloped downward near the entrance. Additionally, during the tour, we went to the top balcony, which apparently leans more toward the stage than it used to. The Theatre does not sell those seats as often, unless an event is extremely popular. In the past, African Americans were only permitted to sit in the balcony seats, and not in the rest of the Theatre. In regards to the sinking ground the guide said that the building has stopped sinking, and remains safe. Hopefully, that is true.
A standard tour at the Auditorium Theatre currently costs $12. Additionally, the tours are typically only offered on weekdays at unusual times. This is probably so as not to interfere with the Theatre’s scheduled performances.
Sources and Further Reading
“Architecture.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/architecture/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).
“Historic Theatre Tours.” Auditorium Theatre. https://tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org/production/2677/19-20-public-theatre-tours/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).
“Origins & Stats.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/origins-stats/ (accessed December 11, 2019).
“Timeline.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/timeline/ (accessed December 11, 2019).