Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Auditorium Theatre, Chicago (1889) Adler & Sullivan, architects; (1967) restoration, Harry Weese & Associates, architects; (2002) restoration, Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
"If you can't build one as good as the one you're tearing down," said Chicago architect Harry Weese in an oral history he gave to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988, then why would you do it. The good one he was referring to was Adler & Sullivan's magnificent Auditorium Theatre. Built inside a massive, multi-purpose building containing a hotel and commercial office space, the theater's debut on December 9, 1889 was attended by none other than the President and Vice President of the United States.
[Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Architect Dankmar Adler had made a name for himself in Chicago as the go-to guy if you were interested in building a theater with pitch-perfect acoustics. When he drew-up plans for the Central Music Hall in 1878, he wanted to create an auditorium with the best sightlines in the city and by putting John Russell's isacoustic curve theory into practice, Adler's hall became the most requested performance venue in the city. If you dropped a pin on the center of the stage floor a person seated in the farthest corner of the uppermost balcony could hear it clear as a bell. When some of the Music Hall's investors decided in the mid-1880s that the time had come for Chicago to have a grand opera house, Ferdinand Peck, the engine that drove the project, decided Adler was the man to design an auditorium for the city that would rival the best opera houses in Europe. Other members of the investment group were worried that Adler and his new partner Louis Sullivan were too inexperienced and wanted the better connected and proven team of Burnham & Root, but Peck stood his ground. On September 26, 1886 the local press announced that the firm of Adler & Sullivan had been selected as the lead architects of the Auditorium Building, which would rise along the north side of Congress Street from Michigan to Wabash Avenue.
[Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, National Historic Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
When the theater was revealed to the public on that cold December night, the audience was awestruck by the breathtaking interior. Adler had engineered another miracle of acoustical perfection while Sullivan filled the auditorium with an explosion of phantasmal flourish. The firm's recently hired draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright would later call the theater, "The greatest room for opera and music in the world, bar none." But the theory devised by the investors that the hotel and office portions of the building would generate enough revenue to sustain the square footage given over to the theater proved to be faulty. In January 1910, Ferdinand Peck, on behalf of the Auditorium Association, approached Sullivan about replacing the theater with more hotel rooms. It was the first in a series of discussions that would ensue over the intervening years about removing the theater and replacing it with income producing square footage, along with conversations about demolishing the entire building and just starting over again.
[Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1929 the original construction bonds came due and the Association didn't have the cash to pay them. Then the Great Depression devastated the nation's economy, and the building's property owners owed the county over $1,000,000 in back taxes. The city worked out a deal with the county tax assessor, and by 1941 the structure was being used to house military personnel while the theater was converted into a bowling alley for the servicemen. Once the war was over, the newly formed Roosevelt College worked out a deal with local government agencies to take over the entire building and house their nascent organization in the deteriorating structure. Over the next decade the theater sat idle while the school found its footing. As the 1950s were drawing to a close, Roosevelt University president Edward Sparling decided to create a committee of board trustees to explore uses for the sagging theater space. When the idea of converting the vast room into a parking lot or gymnasium were vetoed, the committee decided to explore the option of restoring the theater and returning it back to its former glory. One of the more dynamic personalities on the Board of Trustees had spearheaded a drive to raise money and renovate the hotel's old banquet room into a recital hall, and if restoration of the theater was on the agenda, then Sparling knew that Beatrice Spachner was the one board member who would be up to the challenge of finding the money required to restore the 4,000+ seat auditorium.
[Auditorium Theatre, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Often described as "indefatigable" and "tenacious," Bea Spachner hit the ground running and didn't slow down for the next 20 years. When a young Chicago-based architect named Harry Weese first heard about the gymnasium plan, he addressed a letter "To Whom It May Concern" and mailed it off to the school. He wrote an impassioned note about saving the theater and as a result was invited to meet with the committee in 1960. He toured the theater, told them it could be saved for a fraction of the cost that Chicago's prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill had estimated, and got himself appointed architect in charge of the restoration. He waived his fee as a gift to the city, the indomitable Mrs. Spachner got to work, $2 million was raised, and on the evening of October 31, 1967 the newly restored Auditorium Theatre had its second debut. In 2000 the State of Illinois awarded a $13 million grant for on-going restoration and physical plant improvements overseen by architects Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, with still more work to be done. In her April 30, 1960 My Day nationally syndicated newspaper column Eleanor Roosevelt, upon hearing about the Auditorium restoration wrote, "When completed, this will be something that Chicago should be proud to show its visitors as an indication of the appreciation which that city has for the cultural life of its people."