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Completed in 1889, the Auditorium Theatre is part of a larger building complex in downtown Chicago called the Auditorium Building. The architects, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, with young draughtsman Frank Lloyd Wright, incorporated several modern features into the theatre such as air conditioning and 3,500 bare carbon filament lamps adorning the multiple levels of the auditorium.
At the time of its design, philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck envisioned what was perhaps the first mixed-use building in modern times: a theatre, hotel and offices all in one coordinated building with receipts from the hotel and offices helping to subsidize the theatre. He wanted to replace Chicago’s aging music hall with an opera house to rival anything found in New York. Peck’s vision of the Auditorium Theatre being a meeting place for the working man and the well-to-do was carried-over into Adler & Sullivan’s design which saw the expensive box seats moved to the sides at 90 degrees to the stage, affording clear views for the four levels of cheaper seats. The architectural style of the theatre is known as Richardsonian Romanesque.
Once built, the Auditorium Building was Chicago’s tallest with its 17-story tower, and its largest given the footprint of half a city block. Air throughout the building was cooled using up to 15 tons of ice per day. Built on marshland, the foundations were essentially a raft of steel, wood, concrete and pitch and they settled about three feet lower than they were set, resulting in the steps down from street level to the box office and the slightly listing floor in the main lobby.
The hotel fell out of favor as patrons developed a preference for private bathrooms instead of the shared bathrooms offered at the Auditorium. In 1904 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra moved-out of the theatre to its own building, and in 1929 the Grand Opera followed suit, leaving the theatre with no permanent tenant. Steel frame skyscrapers soon eclipsed the Auditorium’s office tower. By the early 1930s estimates for demolition were being requested however they were all more costly than the land was worth. In 1941 the theatre declared bankruptcy and was closed.
During World War II the city commandeered the theatre for use as a servicemen’s center for feeding and entertainment, including converting part of the theatre into a bowling alley.
In 1946 Roosevelt University acquired the building, and although they used the hotel and office space, theatre remained shuttered. In the early 1960s, Roosevelt University trustee Beatrice Spachner created the Auditorium Theatre Council, raising $3 million to refurbish the theatre in a project overseen by architect Harry Weese. The theatre reopened in 1967 and has remained in use ever since.
The theatre has been home to all manner of events, from classical concerts and ballet to Broadway productions including “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera”, and rock concerts featuring artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Elton John, The Grateful Dead and many others.
The theatre, as built, had a capacity of 4,200. The auditorium is vast, however ingenious devices, part of the original design, allowed the theatre to appear smaller in size when needed: a careful study of the theatre’s side elevation yields ceiling partitions above the Upper and Lower Galleries which could be lowered to close off those spaces. In addition, curtains were originally fitted to close off the rear parts of the Balcony. The net result was a reduction in seats from 4,200 to 2,500. At its current capacity of 3,901 the theatre is the second largest concert hall in the US, after the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
A solid reducing curtain was designed be raised or lowered to alter the size of the proscenium arch. For large events the reducing curtain was flown out affording the full width of 75ft. For smaller productions the reducing curtain was lowered, narrowing the proscenium opening to 47ft wide by 35ft high. The reducing curtain’s panels are decorated with intricate designs and contain the names of ten famous composers.
There are two murals, by Albert Fleury, which depict Spring (house right) and Winter (house left), with an allegory by Charles Holloway running from right to left along the top of the proscenium arch, intended to suggest the passage of a lifespan through music.
Originally 26 hydraulic lifts were installed under the theatre’s huge 97ft x 61ft stage. Those are now gone however the stage still has 3 functioning lifts, all below a massive 95ft grid allowing for the largest of scenic pieces. Allegedly the theatre still houses its original Thunder Machine!
The theatre has recently enjoyed USA-wide publicity as home of the NFL Drafts in 2015 and 2016.
Tours run Mondays at 10:30am and Noon, plus Thursdays at 10:30am, and last 60-90 minutes. Cost is $12 per person. A booking link is availble on the theatre’s website . Tickets are available at the Box Office 30 minutes before each tour unless the tour is already sold-out. Advance booking is recommended. On a practical note: there are quite a few steps on the tour for the more adventurous however the majority of the highlights are 100% accessible. Note: this tour does not generally include backstage access. Information correct as of March 2017.
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