On December 9, 1889, President and native Ohioan Benjamin Harrison trekked back to Chicago with Vice President Levi Morton in tow, reportedly eager to bring attention to the Midwest as it debuted what was among the world’s largest buildings: The Auditorium Theatre. Morton, a New Englander and financier based in Manhattan, had to concur with his heartland superior about Chicago’s architectural and cultural brawn.
The 125th anniversary of that date did not draw the same kind of political dignitaries, but artists and performers gathered in the Auditorium Theatre to celebrate the grandeur of Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan’s exaltant space. Completed just four years before Chicago would host the Columbian Exposition that would make it a world mecca for modern thought and design, the building remains a vibrant space in the city’s theater scene and an architectural gem.
It wasn’t always so. During World War II, the Auditorium Theatre became a local USO-type facility for servicemen between or en route to foregin deployments. The theater itself was converted into a bowling alley. Operations struggled after that, shifting from television production to rock concerts, and then eventually falling into disrepair. When it seemed the building’s intricately detailed arches and opulent murals would face the wrecking ball, a tenacious trustee of the building owner Roosevelt University mobilized to save it. Beatrice Spachner found what she needed to silence critics of the restoration plan in a young architect named Harry Weese. Weese said the university could restore the massive structure for far less than Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was offering. He offered his services for free.
Though the university is still fundraising for the restoration, the building has been largely returned to its original glory thanks to the ongoing work of MGLM Architects and Booth Hansen. That’s despite having sunk several feet due to last-minute alterations in the 110,000-ton building’s massing, and to downtown Chicago’s famously elusive bedrock. Visitors sometimes say they feel drunk navigating the lobby and stairways, which slope slightly in varying directions.
Still an active theater, the Auditorium’s acoustics are impeccable. The design flew in the face of traditional European opera houses, which used box seats to stratify sightlines and acoustics according to social class. In Adler & Sullivan’s “democractic” theater, good views and sound are universal.
In the glow of lightbulb filament—the original theater was among the world’s first to use electric lighting—Chicago’s Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson says the Auditorium was the reason he enrolled at Roosevelt University. Though he first saw it when it was closed to the public, its plaster falling off and dead birds scattered across the seating, he says he was immediately struck by its beauty. Now, with its structural systems and splendorous detailing intact, it’s once again a monument to the union of engineering and design genius that great architecture still strives to emulate.
“Dankmar Adler was a master of theater design,” said Samuelson. “But it was the unknown, 30-year-old Louis Sullivan that made it a building with heart."