Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre Turns 125

 The Auditorium Theatre By The Numbers

  • Auditorium TheatreAge: 125 years
  • Ranking in height among U.S. buildings when construction was completed in 1889: #1
  • Ranking among best venues to host rock concerts in 1973: #1
  • Year the Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuted in the theatre: 1891
  • Year the Auditorium Theatre was named a National Historic Landmark: 1975
  • Total available seating: 3,901
  • Money raised in 1933 (during the Great Depression) to refurbish the theatre in time for the Century of Progress World’s Fair: $125,000
  • Current possible configurations using three different size orchestra pits, four balcony sizes and two stage set-ups: 24

The Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University (430 South Michigan Avenue) is one of Chicago’s great architectural treasures. Artists who stand on the theatre stage join such noteworthy figures in politics and the arts as Theodore Roosevelt and Jimi Hendrix. Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys.

Auditorium TheatrePerformers love the Auditorium Theatre for its unique acoustics. In fact, it offers near-perfect sound quality. For example, an opera singer walking from stage left to stage center will experience a unique transition. His or her voice will resonate louder as the performer gets closer to stage center. It’s a reciprocal sound—the performer will hear louder applause there as well.

I got an close-up look at the Auditorium Theatre last week at a behind-the-scenes tour hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, as part of its ongoing Open House series. The theatre is one of the reasons Chicago is an architectural mecca.

Auditorium TheatreIt’s an historically significant structure for a number of reasons, not the least of which was what it proved to the world. Chicago wasn’t the only city lobbying Congress to host the world’s fair. The Auditorium Theatre proved to lawmakers that Chicago had the moxie and skill to pull off a huge architectural feat.

Designers Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan broke new ground and many established rules to create the performance space. They pioneered the use of electricity and air conditioning at a time when neither was commonplace. Electricity wasn’t new, but it hadn’t been used in a theatre before. And while Chicago summers are hot and sultry, patrons came to the theatre in Victorian formal wear, not shorts and flip-flops. The Auditorium Theatre delivered great sound and visitors were comfortable.

Auditorium TheatreTo make an evening out even more special, the Auditorium Theatre’s lighting casts a warm glow that makes audience members look good. Let’s say you’ve spent a long, cold winter in Chicago and haven’t had much vitamin D from the sun lately (sound familiar???). Spend a few minutes in the Auditorium Theatre and you’ll look—and perhaps even feel—healthier. Even if you’ve consumed a box of Twizzlers during the performance.

Everything about the design was also “modern.” That’s not to say the style of the building was modern, but the way of thinking that Adler and Sullivan used to create the space most certainly was. The adaptability of the Auditorium Theatre—with different sizes available for the stage, balconies and orchestra pit—is responsible for the space being known as “the Swiss Army knife of theatres.”

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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