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Auditorium Theatre

Auditorium Theatre

Architects: Adler and Sullivan

First Opened: 9th December 1889 (131 years ago)

Website: www.auditoriumtheatre.org Open website in new window

Telephone: (312) 341-2310 Call (312) 341-2310

Address: 50 East Congress Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60605 Show address in Google Maps (new window)


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 cooling and 3,500 electric lamps.

Featured Photos

Detailed Information

A sketch of the opening night
A sketch of the opening night

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.

Peck wanted to replace Chicago’s aging music hall with an opera house to rival anything found in New York. His 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 has been dubbed Richardsonian Romanesque, named for Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), and is a revival style based on French and Spanish Romanesque precedents of the 11th century. Richardson’s style is characterized by massive rough cut stone walls and dramatic semicircular arches, deeply recessed windows, and a new dynamism of interior space. Continuity and unity are keynotes of Richardson’s style.

Cross section showing the various parts of the Auditorium Building: theatre, hotel, and office space
Cross section showing the various parts of the Auditorium Building: theatre, hotel, and office space

The Auditorium has a ceiling that gradually heightens as it recedes in several arches, a design unprecedented in the late 19th century. It was the first theatre to be shaped like the horn of a trumpet.

The 3,500 incandescent electric lamps (originally carbon filament) which run along the ceiling arches and the fronts of the balcony and galleries envelope the audience and eliminate the need for a conventional chandelier in the center of a domed ceiling, common feature in most 19th century opera houses and almost certain to deaden a hall’s acoustics.

Mosaic marble floors flow throughout the theatre. In all, Sullivan used 55 million pieces of mosaic tile. Over the doors at the building’s entrance are six arched art glass lunettes inspired by the allegorical figures of Wisdom, Oratory, Drama, Music, Poetry, and Dance.

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 upon marshland, the foundations were essentially a raft of steel, wood, concrete, and pitch, and the 110,000 ton building settled about three feet lower than the foundations were originally set, resulting in several steps down from street level to the box office and the slightly listing floor in the theatre’s main lobby.

The hotel gradually fell out of favor as patrons developed a preference for private bathrooms instead of the shared bathrooms offered at the Auditorium Building.

The auditorium in 1943, showing the multiplicity of electric lamps lighting the interior
The auditorium in 1943, showing the multiplicity of electric lamps lighting the interior

In 1904 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra moved out of the theatre to its own building (Orchestra Hall, now called Symphony Center), and in 1929 the Grand Opera followed suit (moving to the newly built Civic Opera House), leaving the theatre with no permanent tenant. Steel frame skyscrapers soon eclipsed the Auditorium’s stone built 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 (a USO center) for feeding and entertainment, which included 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, the 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 large scale Broadway productions including Les Misérables and The 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 movable ceiling panels at the front of the Upper and Lower Galleries which could be lowered to close off those spaces when not required. In addition, curtains were originally fitted to close off the rear sections 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.

The “reducing curtain” makes the proscenium opening 47ft by 35ft, instead of 75ft by 40ft
The “reducing curtain” makes the proscenium opening 47ft by 35ft, instead of 75ft by 40ft

A “reducing curtain” was designed to alter the size of the proscenium arch. For large events the reducing curtain was flown out affording the full width of 75ft and a height of 40ft (22.9m by 12.2m). For smaller productions the reducing curtain was lowered, narrowing the proscenium opening to 47ft wide by 35ft high (14.3m by 10.7m). The solid reducing curtain’s panels are decorated with intricate designs and contain the names of ten famous composers.

There are two murals adorning the side walls of the auditorium, by Albert Fleury, which depict Spring (House Right) and Winter (House Left). In addition there is an allegorical mural by Charles Holloway running – unusually – from right to left along the top of the proscenium arch, intended to suggest the passage of time of a lifespan through music.

Originally 26 hydraulic lifts were installed under the theatre’s huge 100ft x 63ft (30.6m by 19.2m) stage. Those are now gone however the theatre still has three functioning lifts for varying sizes of Orchestra Pit. The stagehouse had a 95ft (29m) high Grid[iron] (now 80ft – 24.4m) allowing for the largest of scenic pieces, and all the evidence suggests the theatre was the recipient of the first counterweight flying system throughout all of North America. Other stage machinery included a rolling backdrop cyclorama, consisting of a 300ft long by 70ft high (91.4m by 21.3m) canvas roll arranged in a large half circle. Rarely for a theatre in the North America, a Thunder Run was installed when the theatre was built, and still exists.

The Roosevelt Organ
The Roosevelt Organ

The Auditorium was originally equipped with an organ, “Frank Roosevelt No. 400”, which was a 4-manual, 127-rank (some sources report 129-rank) instrument, featuring imported reeds by French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and reported to have cost around $50,000. The 7,193 pipe mammoth was officially dedicated on 29th October 1890. The organ chambers were located at the sides of the auditorium just in advance of the stage however are now sealed up. An echo organ was located within the dome above the Orchestra seating and a stage organ was installed within a swell box backstage, far enough up a wall to be out of the way.

In 1941/2, when the theatre was being converted into a USO center, the organ was sold at auction for $1,000 to William H. Barnes. Barnes initially stored the organ then donated it to Indiana University in 1944; the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company installed it into the Indiana University Auditorium which is where it remains to this day.

The Joffrey Ballet has been resident at the Auditorium since 1998 however in late 2017 announced their intention to vacate the Auditorium and move to the Lyric Opera House by 2020. The Auditorium continues to play host to Chicago’s large scale musicals and live events, and recently enjoyed USA-wide publicity as home of the NFL Drafts in 2015 and 2016.

The Auditorium Theatre was named Outstanding Historic Theatre of 2019 by the League of Historic American Theatres Link opens in new window for its programs and services, its community impact, and the quality of its restoration and rehabilitation work.

Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Auditorium Theatre?

As of October 2020 tours have resumed with COVID-19 protocols in place. The general tour schedule is: 2nd or 3rd Thursday of the month at 10:30am and 12:30pm, and 3rd or 4th Tuesday of the month at 10:30am and 12:30pm. Check the event website Link opens in new window for the latest schedule and availability. Tours last approximately 60 minutes and cost $15.


Upcoming Special Events
Theatre Tour

Theatre Tour (ongoing, various days and times)

Go behind the scenes of this National Historic Landmark, built by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, and view it as few do. Enjoy the radiant 24-karat gold-leafed ceiling arches, hundreds of Sullivan’s beautifully restored intricate stencil patterns, ornate gilded and bas-relief designs, and the endless floor and wall mosaics and murals by Charles Holloway and Albert Fleury.

The general tour schedule is: 2nd or 3rd Thursday of the month at 10:30am and 12:30pm, and 3rd or 4th Tuesday of the month at 10:30am and 12:30pm. Check the event website Link opens in new window for the latest schedule and availability. Tours last approximately 60 minutes and cost $15.

COVID-19 safety measures are in place during the tour. The theatre has increased cleaning efforts, including in high-touch areas like railings and elevator buttons. Hand sanitizer stations are available throughout the building. Tours are for six people max per tour, and all patrons and tour guides must wear a mask covering the nose and mouth throughout the tour. All ticket holders and the tour guide must maintain 6 feet distance per household throughout the tour. Please arrive 10 minutes early to guarantee access. All tour ticket holders will be subject to a wellness check-in that includes a touch-less temperature check, plus a short verbal questionnaire. All Auditorium Theatre staff are subject to a wellness check before tours. Tickets will be scanned by Auditorium staff, but only ticket buyers may handle their print at home ticket, or phone. The Auditorium Theatre will refund any tour ticket if these guidelines are not followed, or if a patron or tour guide does not pass the wellness check.

Additional dates and times may be available for private group tours of up to 6 people. Private tours are only available by appointment, depending on theatre availability. To schedule a group tour of the Auditorium Theatre, please call (312) 341-2300 Link opens in new window.

Click here to go to the event website. Link opens in new window

Further Reading

Online

Books

Technical Information

Flying System
System Type
Single Purchase Counterweight system operated Stage Right
Grid Height
80ft (24.4m)
Linesets
99; pipes 63ft (19.2m) long
Locking Rail
10ft (3m) above Stage level; Stage Right
General Information
Current Seating Capacity
3,661 (Orchestra: 1,325; Boxes: 184; First Balcony: 1,324; Second Balcony (Lower Gallery): 460; Gallery (Upper Gallery): 368)
Electric Lights in Auditorium
3,500
Original Seating Capacity
4,200
Lighting
Followspot Booth
160ft (48.8m) to Proscenium; capacity for 2 followspots
Followspots
2 @ Ultra Arc
Orchestra Pit
Configurations
342 sq ft, 925 sq ft & 1,327 sq ft
Depth
7ft (2.1m) below Stage level
Width
Approx 53ft (16.2m)
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height
35ft, adjustable up to 40ft (10.7m to 12.2m)
Proscenium Width
47ft, adjustable up to 75ft (14.3m to 22.9m)
Stage Depth
63ft (19.2m)
Stage Width
100ft (30.5m)
Historic Photos & Documents

Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Auditorium Theatre

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  1. Auditorium
  2. Exterior
Auditorium

The auditorium originally sat 4,200 however seating capacity is now 3,901. All four levels (main floor and boxes, balcony, lower gallery, and upper gallery) are still in use although the upper gallery is often not sold.

The new electric lamp (in 1889) was used as a feature in the design with 3,500 bare carbon filament lamps adorning the main arches and other areas of the auditorium.

The gently increasing radius arches and no central dome or chandelier yielded excellent acoustics.

Exterior

The large rough cut stone appearance of the building’s façade, along with semicircular arches, are hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in which the building was designed.

The building settled about three feet lower than the foundations were originally set, resulting in several steps down from street level to the box office and the slightly listing floor of the theatre’s main lobby.



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