clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What you should know about the 130-year-old Auditorium Theatre

New, 1 comment

The national landmark celebrates its 130th anniversary in December

Interior of a theater with a lighted archway and red seats.
Auditorium Theater.

The Auditorium Theater is inviting everyone to its 130th birthday party next month.

The venue—located at 50 Ida B. Wells Drive—is opening its doors to the public all day on December 9 for free tours and an open house.

What you might know about this architectural feat is that it’s a National Historic Landmark designed by the iconic architects of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Another famous architect worked on elements of the theater as well—Frank Lloyd Wright.

At the time, he was a draftsman studying under Adler and Sullivan. He called the theater “the greatest room for music and opera in the world—bar none.”

In honor of its anniversary, we take a closer look at the theater and dive into other parts of the landmark’s history.

Its design was influenced by the Haymarket Riot and labor unrest

In 1885, businessman and arts patron Ferdinand Peck had organized a group of wealthy locals to finance the opera and concert hall. In the following year, labor issues in Chicago and movement for the eight-hour workday led to the explosive 1886 Haymarket Square riot.

That event inspired Peck to make the theater accessible to all Chicagoans. The Auditorium was designed as a multi-use structure that would include a 400-room luxury hotel and 136-suite office space. Proceeds from those spaces would fund performances and keep ticket prices affordable for everyday workers. Plus, every seat has good views and acoustics (unlike traditional European opera houses where expensive box seats were the best).

“When the Auditorium Theatre was built, its founders hoped that it would serve as a place for all of Chicago and beyond to experience music, dance, theatre, speakers, and beautiful architecture,” says Rich Regan, Auditorium Theatre’s CEO.

The original Auditorium Theater

It was the largest, tallest and heaviest building of its time

The Auditorium was often touted as the largest, tallest and heaviest building since the Great Pyramids. At the time it was built, it was indeed the largest building in the country, and the most expensive building in Chicago. The Richardson Romanesque structure cost $3.2 million, about $77 million in 2019 dollars.

It included a 4,200 seat auditorium, 130 offices, 400-room hotel, a bar, and restaurants. The original design called for a 16-story tower, but Peck requested two extra floors and the architects complied.

The Auditorium’s fortress-like exterior with thick load-bearing outer walls are much heavier than the interior—weighing about 110,000 pounds the foundation has sunk three feet into the ground.

The stage went dark for more than two decades

Despite Peck’s populist vision of the theater, the hotel and offices could not financially support it in the long term and it was closed in 1941 after going bankrupt. From 1942 to 1945, it served as a World War II officers’ center to entertain local soldiers and when they returned home.

As the empty space began to deteriorate, Roosevelt University acquired the building and moved operations on-site but lacked the funds to improve it until 1963, when an Auditorium Theatre Council was created to raise money for its restoration. Under the direction of architect Harry Weese, the theater was restored and reopened in 1967.

It was the real “house of rock”

The early days of the theater were dominated by the fine arts—it was the original home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Civic Opera.

But after it reopened in the late ‘60s, the Auditorium hosted all sorts of rock and R&B legends including rare performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. In 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s concert there became part of their live double album 4 Way Street. Over the last five decades it’s also featured Elton John, Neil Young, Genesis Prince, Pink Floyd, David Byrne, Miles Davis, Jack White, Chance the Rapper, and Bjork.

Many political heavyweights have made appearances

When the Auditorium Theater officially opened on December 9, 1889, both President William Henry Harrison and his VP Levi P. Morton were in attendance. More than a decade later, Booker T. Washington appeared in front of a sold-out crowd and in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt famously told a crowd there that he felt “as strong as a bull moose” during a presidential run.

In 1972, there was a large rally for Democratic candidate George McGovern, who lost that year to Richard Nixon. More recently, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders rallied there the night before the Illinois primary election in 2016 and Elizabeth Warren visited earlier this year.