On a frigid day in January, earlier this year (pre-COVID), I had a bad case of cabin fever, so I booked the Historic Auditorium Theatre tour in Chicago. Our most historic theatre, built in 1889, located in the South Loop at State Street and Ida B. Wells Drive (formerly Congress Parkway) celebrated its 130th-anniversary last year.
Although I enjoy giving them, I like to switch things up and take a tour occasionally. It’s a nice break and a great way to learn something new. For a while, I gave tours at the Chicago Theatre, the first movie palace theatre of brothers Balaban & Katz on State Street in downtown Chicago. This guided tour brings you through the theatre’s interior, including backstage if you are lucky enough. It was indeed a spectacular space with an incredible history and a favorite in my tour repertoire. I highly recommend it when they become available again. Click here for details. And please don’t forget to tip your tour guide!
Back to the Auditorium Theatre. As you enter the lobby off Ida B. Wells Drive (formerly Congress Parkway), you step down into a small, bright area surrounded by exquisite architectural details. From the colorful, intricate mosaic floors, the will call window’s ironwork to the opulent door plates & art glass windows above the doors by Healy & Millet representing the arts’ muses; wisdom, oratory, drama, music, poetry, and dance. A beautiful introduction to what you will see on this tour.
If you are familiar with the Cultural Center in the Loop (downtown Chicago), you’ll recognize Healy & Millet’s work. They designed the dome on the north side of the building that honors the Grand Army of Republic (G.A.R.), a memorial to the civil war branch. Most know it as the ‘other dome’ in this spectacular building, the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome on the south side of the building. Stay tuned for a blog post about the Cultural Center.
As you enter the main lobby, you see the signature Louis Sullivan organic ornamentation everywhere. The attention to detail and the craftsmanship of the gold leaf stencils, ornate pillars, elaborate railings & spectacular lighting delights the designer in me. The floor mosaics create carpets throughout the main floor. There is an inviting, cozy inglenook complete with a quote praising the theatres’ magnificence.
Here are a few things I remember about the Auditorium Theatre from my docent days: the developer was a gentleman named Ferdinand Peck, at one point, it was a bowling alley used by soldiers of WWII, the original project included an unprecedented multi-use building containing a theatre, office, and hotel complete with a bar & restaurant built by architects Dankmar Alder & Louis Sullivan and a young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Our guide confirmed what I remembered and gave us the overall history of the 3,900 seat theatre. Here is an excellent, brief description of that history from Deanna Isaacs from the Reader: It was an architectural and engineering marvel, a mammoth Romanesque* block of limestone and granite, sporting an 18-story tower and floating on a raftlike foundation of railroad ties, concrete, and steel set in a bed of Chicago clay—into which it promptly sank a foot or more, necessitating steps down from the sidewalk on Congress into the lobby. The theater was equipped with cutting-edge technology that included 26 hydraulic lifts for the stage, a first-ever central-air-conditioning system that consumed 15 tons of ice daily, and 3,500 of those newfangled carbon-filament lightbulbs. Inside, it was a sort of dungeon-meets-fairyland—all curves and arches, outlined in lights, graced with exquisite murals, the stage framed by an expanding series of gilded semicircles that form the airy ceiling. Adler and Sullivan’s groundbreaking democratic seating plan put the costly box seats on the far sides and the cheap seats on the main floor. Called the “eighth wonder of the world,” the theater generated a global buzz that helped Chicago land the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
*The architecture style was 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, characterized by massive stone walls and dramatic semicircular arches, heavy, rough-cut stone walls, deeply recessed windows, and a new interior space dynamism. Continuity and unity are keynotes of Richardson’s style.
Next, our guide leads us through the vomitorium to the main floor. Yes, you read that correctly. A vomitorium refers to a passage found beneath the seating through which an audience can exit at the end of an event. This term originates from Roman times when amphitheaters had vomitoriums to allow the audience to leave.
Upon entering, suddenly, you are enveloped in golden light. You can’t help but admire the elegant embellishments everywhere. The corner designs that border the room with perfect acoustics contain medallions designed by Johannes Gelert, a Danish-born New York sculptor. The portraits are of Wagner (opera), Haydn (orchestral music), Shakespeare (drama), and Demosthenes (oratory). A dramatic mural frames the proscenium arch over the stage by Charles Holloway. Holloway’s design represents humanity at different stages of life through song. Healy & Millet held a competition for this project, and Holloway was chosen. Interesting that Louis Comfort Tiffany was a participant in the competition as well.
You’ll see the ever-present ghost light on the stage, there for safety reasons and a long-held theatre tradition to chase away unwanted spirits. The spectacular 24-carat golden bracelets that adorn the ceiling adhere to Sullivan’s motto of form follows function. Look closely at the domes embedded throughout the bracelet. These are functioning vents for the air conditioning. Looking up and toward the back of the theatre reminds me of a star-filled night sky.
Heading up to the next level, we see similar ornate details, more organic ornamentation, another cozy inglenook, and the Sullivan designed carpeting supplied by Marshall Field. On the first balcony, you notice murals on either side, one called “Spring,” the other “Winter” designed & painted by French-trained artist Albert Francis Fleury. This is a continuation of the mural above the proscenium arch.
Time to ascend to the top level and the nose bleed seats. When a show at the Auditorium sells out, these seats fill up. Though not for the faint of heart & those afraid of heights, you will find the original seats & a room that houses the mechanics that controls the stage’s size. Even this high up, the sound is quite good, thanks to acoustic master Dankmar Adler, so you can still enjoy a show from here though I prefer the main floor or first balcony.
Our guide told us a sweet story that he sent his allowance to the Auditorium Theatre to contribute to badly needed repairs when he was a child. In return, they sent him a ticket to see a performance which happened to be in these seats as a thank you. His personal story made this tour all the better.
The programming of the Auditorium Theatre has evolved over the years, hosting a wide variety of performances. Here is a fascinating, historic timeline of the Auditorium Theatre & Chicago events.
Here are several from that list.
1886 Haymarket affair. Ferdinand Wythe Peck, a Chicago businessman, incorporates the Chicago Auditorium Association on December 8 for the purpose of developing the world’s largest, grandest, most expensive theater. He plans for the building to include an office block and a first-class hotel. On the board of the Auditorium Association is Marshall Field, Edson Keith, Martin Ryerson, George Pullman, and other Chicago business tycoons. Adler and Sullivan are hired to design the project, based on their work at the Interstate Exposition Building.
1888 The Republican National Convention is held in the partially-finished Auditorium Building; Benjamin Harrison is nominated as the candidate. Adler and Sullivan hire the young Frank Lloyd Wright to work for their firm
1941 The building and theatre close to the public. The theatre is taken over by the city and used as a World War II Servicemen’s Center, complete with a bowling alley on the stage.
1952 In order to widen Congress Street, a sidewalk is created through the south end of the building, destroying the Auditorium Building’s hotel cafe, the famous Long Bar, and other original public areas.
From 1968 to 1975, the theatre served as Chicago’s premier music house, with performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, and many others.
In 2017, The Auditorium hosted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and opera singer Kathleen Battle, among other inspiring speakers and performers.
The theatre began declining and falling into disrepair during the 1930s. The opera & symphony moved out, and it was taken over by the city and used as a World War II Serviceman’s Center. It was closed during the 40s, 50s & 60s until Roosevelt University acquired it.
Recently it was the home of The Joffery Ballet that unfortunately left this past year to join the Lyric Opera House. Today, it still houses dance companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Folklórico de México, and Chicago’s best local dance companies Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. Besides dance companies, the Auditorium continues to host musicians, speakers, and a variety of events.
I have fond memories of attending the holiday classic the Nutcracker as a child, my sister & I dancing in the aisles. In the last few years, I’ve seen David Sedaris, where I paid way too much for a nosebleed seat but was still well worth it, the ballet Giselle which was breathtaking, and an updated version of the Nutcracker with the storyline based during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that was amazing.
I highly recommend taking the Historic Auditorium Theatre tour in Chicago or attend a performance to see its magnificence up close. Who knows when we will be able to do that in person, so here is a virtual tour for you to check out.
I hope you enjoyed this Historic Theatre tour of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and learned something new. The photos don’t do it justice, and if you are planning a future visit to Chicago, you should check it out yourself. Click here for details. It looks like tours are slowly starting up in January 2021. Check the website to see when performances will resume.
As usual, I needed a snack after the tour, so I headed to one of my favorite cafes in the south Loop, Cafecito. Best Cuban sandwiches in the Loop. Luckily, they have other locations, and one is near my day job, so I know what I’m ordering for lunch when I occasionally head to the office.
Until we can do things in person again, be well & stay safe. Until our next adventure, my friends.