It’s easy to pick the instant when Chicago’s ongoing run of architectural greatness began.

That moment isn’t Oct. 8-10, 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the downtown and sparked a revolutionary rebuilding. Nor is it March 1, 1884, when a permit was issued to build the Home Insurance office building, the first large commercial building supported by a skeleton of metal, not walls of masonry. As important as those dates are, they pale in comparison to Dec. 9, 1889.

On that night, whose 125th anniversary will be celebrated Tuesday, President Benjamin Harrison and Vice President Levi Morton joined a throng at the glittering opening of the Auditorium Theatre, a masterwork designed by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Taking in the vast, jaw-dropping space of the theater earlier in the day, Harrison reportedly turned to the vice president, a Manhattan banker, and remarked: “I say, Mr. Morton, New York surrenders, eh?”

Replied the vice president: Yes.

The Auditorium Theatre is one of America’s most stirring spaces, yet it’s simply a part, albeit the chief one, of the massive Auditorium Building at Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway, which was completed the following year. Look beyond the building’s grimy, air-conditioner-pocked exterior and you’ll find the origins of Chicago’s design DNA: its image of urban might and indestructibility; its seamless integration of architecture and engineering; its mix of complementary uses under a single roof; is quest to be the biggest and the best.

This singular structure showed the world that Chicago was a big city that could get big things done. It opened the door for Chicago to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and set the city’s sights high, paving the way for such recent triumphs as Millennium Park. The Auditorium also represented the first full flowering of a new sort of architecture, which rejected aristocratic European models in favor of a democratic, and distinctly American, paradigm.

On Tuesday, there should be a delicious taste of nostalgia at a gala event celebrating the theater’s 125th anniversary. Broadway actress Patti LuPone — whose great-grand aunt, the opera prima donna Adelina Patti, sang from the theater’s stage on its opening night — is scheduled to perform, as are members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

But the Auditorium and the city it calls home are less about the past than about inventing the urban future.

The civic force behind the building, philanthropist Ferdinand Peck, had aims that were social as well as aesthetic. Peck believed, perhaps naively, that a great performance space could ease the tensions between workers and industrialists that exploded in the Haymarket incident of 1886, when a peaceful labor rally turned violent after an unknown person threw a bomb at police.

He also realized that a vast concert hall would not be financially viable on its own; it would benefit from the presence of an attached hotel and offices whose profits would subsidize lavish stage productions.

Adler and Sullivan gave remarkable form to these uses: A 10-story block, topped by a four-square tower of eight stories, which indulged Chicago’s appetite for superlatives. It was the city’s most expensive building, costing more than $3 million, as well Chicago’s tallest, rising to a then-impressive height of nearly 240 feet. At 110,000 tons, its weight swelled by walls of granite and limestone, “it was the heaviest and most massive (building) in the world,” according to Sullivan biographer Robert Twombly,

Innovative foundations supported its enormous weight. Its theater was, in essence, a building within a building, wrapped in a U-shaped outer layer consisting of the hotel fronting Michigan and Congress, plus the office building along Congress and Wabash Avenue. It was no accident that the arrangement cut off the theater from street noise.

Simple, dignified and massive, the Auditorium’s exterior was strongly influenced by the rounded arches and sober Romanesque bearing of architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s then-new (now-demolished) Marshall Field Wholesale Store near the present site of the Chicago Board of Trade.

The leading American architecture critic of the day, Montgomery Schuyler, praised the building’s powerful form, though he quibbled with aspects of the exterior. Yet Schuyler had nothing but praise for the theater, whose success, he remarked, was “striking and unchallenged.”

As the historian Joseph Siry writes in his deeply researched 2002 monograph on the Auditorium Building, its theater broke from the precedent of European opera houses organized around tiers of private boxes for the rich. Instead, a nearly square floor plan, with balconies rising above the main floor, optimized sightlines and acoustics for all 4,200-plus (now roughly 3,900) seats.

Private boxes were shifted to the side. The best seats were in the middle of the main level. Like a megaphone, four ellipse-shaped arches directed sound outward from the stage. Exposed light bulbs, a departure from traditional chandeliers, accented the arches’ structural drama and underscored the hall’s modernity, electricity being a novelty in those days.

Sullivan’s gold and white palette, a shift from conventional red, made the light emanating from the arches resemble what one observer called “a mild sunlight.” In contrast to both typical historical ornament and the Auditorium’s austere exterior, Sullivan’s nature-inspired decoration endowed the theater’s interior with a distinctively Midwestern — and, thus, American — flavor.

Movable ceiling partitions allowed the balconies to be closed off, rendering the grand space more intimate for smaller shows.

The Auditorium Building prospered for nearly 20 years, according to Twombly, but hit hard times in the 1920s, when its resident opera company decamped for the Civic Opera Building on Wacker Drive. The Auditorium might well have been demolished, but during the Depression, the cost of tearing it down outweighed the diminished value of the land beneath it.

A savior emerged in 1946 when Roosevelt University bought the building and converted its office and hotel rooms into classrooms and faculty offices. But the university doesn’t have Harvard’s endowment, so restoration efforts have proceeded piecemeal, from a 1967 revamp of the theater by Harry Weese to Laurence Booth’s 2003 striking redo of the hotel’s former banquet hall, now a Roosevelt University recital room called Ganz Hall.

It is heartbreaking to walk through spaces like the one in the tower once occupied by Adler and Sullivan’s suite, where a young Frank Lloyd Wright assisted Sullivan on the Auditorium’s design. Today, that space is a rabbit warren of offices. Booth, who prepared a conservation master plan for Roosevelt in 2000, recalled in an interview last week that the study’s estimate for returning the entire building to Grade-A shape was $50 million to $100 million.

Yet even in slightly tattered state, the Auditorium remains vibrant. Its theater hosts an estimated 250 events a year, from ballet to Broadway shows, rock concerts to Sunday church services. Next spring, the National Football League will hold its annual draft in the theater. “What sets us apart is that we’re the only theater in the Loop that does a little bit of everything,” said the theater’s executive director, Brett Batterson.

Chicago’s “Windy City” nickname stems from the bragging of its boosters rather than the breezes whipping off Lake Michigan, but there is no hype in the assessments of those who tout the Auditorium’s enduring importance as an engineering triumph, an architectural masterpiece and a civic monument. “This set the tone,” Batterson said, “for what the city would be.”

By: Blair Kamin