The architecture of the Auditorium Building is widely considered one of the most influential feats of Chicago design and engineering. Auditorium architects Adler and Sullivan redesigned the exterior of the building several times, making significant changes even after the carefully-calculated foundations of the massive building had been laid. The Auditorium Building is an immense structure with a Romanesque facade and organic ornamental design throughout the interior of the building
In 1889, the Auditorium Building was the tallest, largest, and heaviest building in Chicago. The bottom three floors of the building were made of large rough-cut blocks of dark granite stone while the remaining seven floors and the tower above are made of lighter limestone. The Auditorium Theatre’s main entrance, three large stone arches facing south on Ida B Wells Drive, rests at the base of the building’s impressive seventeen story tower (once the tallest in Chicago). Arches and shadowed window and door openings cover the entire facade of the building. The outside of the Auditorium is emblematic of the Chicago School and has often been compared to a fortress: massive, powerful, and bold. The materials that make up the exterior of the building were changed after the building’s foundations were in place from terra cotta to granite and limestone.
The Auditorium Building was influenced by the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The style of architecture 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 is characterized by massive stone walls and dramatic semicircular arches, heavy, rough-cut stone walls, deeply recessed windows, and a new dynamism of interior space. Continuity and unity are keynotes of Richardson’s style.
Chicago was notorious for its wet and unstable soil. The soil beneath the Auditorium consists of soft blue clay to a depth of over 100 feet, which made the conventional foundations of the 1800s impossible. Building tall structures was very difficult due to the severe settlement caused by the unstable soil and weight of the tall and massive structures.
Dankmar Adler designed the Auditorium’s foundation as a unique configuration of isolated piers, each created to support a portion of the building’s 110,000 tons. The foundation was made of a crisscrossed grillage of timbers and railroad beams encased in concrete. On this floating foundation, Adler placed his rubble and stone pyramid footings and isolated piers. As Adler anticipated, each pier sank gradually into the wet soil as the weight of the building was applied to it.
Additionally, Adler needed to consider the 17-story tower (seven stories taller than the rest of the structure) over one section of the Auditorium’s south side. Because the tower would be completed after the rest of the building, the tower’s piers would settle at different rates. This unequal settlement could potentially cause structural damage. To ensure uniform settlement, Adler placed concrete and iron blocks in the basement beneath the tower before the building was constructed. The extra weight was then removed as it was replaced by the weight of the completed tower.
As was common in the 1880s, the architects knew some settlement would occur. Adler planned for this by designing the building to be constructed with a combination of flexible wrought iron beams and sturdy cast iron columns, allowing the building to have some flexibility and give.
The Auditorium Theatre’s design brilliantly blends together various elements and ideals. Sullivan’s “form follows function” philosophy and love of nature are on display throughout, and Peck’s democratic values were taken into consideration when designing the theatre itself.
One of the highlights of the Auditorium Theatre is its versatility. The theatre was designed with multiple elements that allowed the theatre to change size, shape, and purpose.
A solid reducing curtain made from iron and plaster was designed be raised or lowered to alter the size of the stage’s proscenium opening. For full operas and large events, the reducing curtain was lifted to allow the performers to use the full stage width of 75ft. For smaller productions and events, such as lectures and concerts, the reducing curtain was lowered (as seen here) to narrow the stage opening to 47ft wide x 35ft high. The reducing curtain face panels are decorated with intricate organic designs and contain the names of ten famous composers.
Part of the parquet or orchestra level (the area closest to the stage) could be covered with temporary floors to transform the theatre into the city’s largest ballroom. Small cast iron footings (still visible today) were located across the floor to hold vertical poles that supported the temporary floor above the seats. This floor system allowed the theatre to be used as a ballroom or a banquet hall, as well as a space for indoor softball games, tennis matches, and more.
When the Auditorium Theatre opened in 1889, the top two galleries could be completely hidden by the use of large hinged ceiling panels. The panels were lowered from the ceiling and closed off the fronts of the galleries. Curtains were also lowered between pillars on the first balcony, closing off the back half of this seating. This changed the seating capacity of the theatre from 4,200 to 2,500 for smaller events.
For mass meetings and conventions, such as the Republican National Convention of 1888, the theater seating capacity could be expanded. Risers of seating were added to the Dress Circle’s lobby, as well as to the stage and hallways behind the boxes, making the total seating capacity over 6,000.
In 1889, 26 hydraulic lifts were located beneath the Auditorium Theatre’s huge stage. This modern technology could raise and lower sections of the stage one at a time or in combination. Adler modified the lifts, allowing them to be quicker and more precise than previous systems. The lifts were used to hide areas of the stage from audience view (for changing scenery), to create levels, and even to simulate moving water.
Today, all of the hydraulic pistons have been removed and the stage has three functioning electronic lifts in the orchestra pit. The orchestra lift was originally comprised of platforms.
Additional technology for on-stage transformations included a 95-foot rigging loft, a rolling backdrop canvas, and a thunder-making device, among others. The rigging loft was a counterweight system made up of iron pulleys and rope cables. This loft allowed drops to be raised high above the stage, out of the audience’s sight lines. The rolling backdrop canvas was a large half-circle canvas roll (300 ft long x 70 ft tall) that stretched across the back and sides of the stage, showing panoramas of the sky. The thunder machine (which remarkably still exists in the theatre) was a series of tracks on which an iron cannon ball was placed so it would roll down the maze, creating the sound of thunder.
When entering into the theatre’s front orchestra level), patrons go through the small, low, and dark “vomitoria.” This experience allows for the largest contrast possible when stepping into the very large, open, and bright theatre house. This technique, called compression and expansion, was frequently used by the later famous architect and young draftsman on the Auditorium Theatre Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Auditorium Theatre was one of the first theatres to be both heated and air conditioned, allowing it to function year-round. The air intake was located south of the stage. The air was then heated or cooled in the basement before it was pumped into the theatre through ornamental plaster domes located throughout the theatre. The presence of domed vents in the upper galleries, as well as on the main floor, supported Ferdinand Peck’s ideal of democracy – everyone got a heated or air-conditioned theatre experience.
In Chicago’s colder months, the air was drawn into the theatre and washed with sprays of water, humidified and forced over hot radiators before being circulated into all areas of the theatre.
In summer, 15 tons of ice were delivered daily to the theatre through huge doors in the sidewalk. The ice was crushed, salted, and placed in large holding vats. Air drawn in from the theatre’s south side intake was sprayed clean and cooled by forcing the air across the vats of crushed ice. The modern air cooling system allowed audiences of the Auditorium Theatre to enter into the theatre and cool off.
The Auditorium was among the first buildings to be wired with electricity at the time of its construction. Eleven massive generators were housed in the Auditorium Building to supply its power. The theatre holds 3,500 electric clear glass carbon filament bulbs which arch across the ceiling and the balcony, and surround the audience. Sullivan’s original design was particularly spectacular in 1889, when most electric lighting designs were modeled after candle chandeliers.
Gas lighting had been the cause of many devastating theatre fires, and in 1883 the Chicago Citizens’ Association recommended that theatres switch to electricity. By 1888, while most Chicago theaters used electric lighting, the Auditorium’s system was the largest and most innovative.
“…the arrangement of electric lamps, in great stars, suspended from the roof and walls of the house…”
– Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1888
Today, the carbon bulbs are special ordered from a company in Glen Ellyn, IL. They are an exact replica of the Thomas Edison Carbon Filament Bulb. The theatre’s lighting is correct to the original design of the building.
Fun Fact: The light bulbs in the arches of the theatre are changed by Roosevelt University’s Head Electrician, who climbs inside the arches of the theatre where there are small walkways. The small circle openings in the archways are large enough for the light bulb to be pulled back up into the arch and exchanged with a new bulb.
The Auditorium Theatre is known throughout the world for its perfect acoustics. Every interior element has been carefully considered, contributing to outstanding acoustics and amplified sound: the positioning of the seats, the materials on the walls, and the ceiling’s configuration. Even from the highest row of the top gallery, audiences can clearly hear an unamplified voice from the stage.
Influences for the Auditorium Theatre acoustics include The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah; the synagogues that Adler’s father (a rabbi and cantor) worked at throughout his lifetime; ancient Roman and Greek theaters; and John Scott Russell’s theory of isacoustic curve. The basic premise of Russell’s theory was that sound traveled congruently with sightlines and the optimal auditorium design had an upward slope from front to back, essentially eliminating a broad back wall where reverberation could cause problems. He called the ideal configuration an “isacoustic curve.”
Adler included a large number of seats in two sections on the main floor: the parquet near the stage (now called the Gold Circle) and the parquet circle (now called the Dress Circle) farther back. Adler elevated seats by about 15 inches every two rows. Ascending rows let observers both see and hear above the heads of others directly in front of them.
The shape of the theatre space itself does a great deal to contribute to the perfect acoustics of the Auditorium Theatre. The theatre is shaped like a trumpet or speaking tube to assist the projection of sound from the stage. The ceiling arches crescendo in height from the stage outward while they contain the sound and reflect it back down into the audience.
The materials that make up the theatre’s interior were carefully chosen to allow for both acoustic and aesthetic perfection. Adler and Sullivan chose thick plaster for the Auditorium’s interior surfaces because it was moderately resonant and reflective, supporting clear amplification without distracting reverberation. The plaster surfaces were additionally broken up with decorative molding so that reflections from the smooth surfaces would not cause echoes.
When the Auditorium Theatre was built, Chicago was still dealing with the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was very important to Peck, Adler, and Sullivan that the theatre be as safe and fireproof as possible. Several features of the Auditorium specifically designed for fire safety include the usage of plaster material instead of wood materials for the walls and ceilings of the theatre, stone walls for the exterior of the building, and a large number of narrow aisles (rather than fewer wide aisles) and tunnel-like passageways (vomitoria or “voms”) leading out of the theatre allowing for a quick and easy egress. “Entire structure absolutely fire-proof,” boasted the original Auditorium Building brochure.