1.7. THE CENTRAL MUSIC HALL

Dankmar Adler, Central Music Hall, Chicago, 1879. The auditorium’s entrance is centered on the State Street façade, while immediately to the rear (left) of the business block is the auditorium with its three three-story tall stained glass windows. (Online)

The Railroad Strike of July 1877 had convinced Peck and the Fairbank group that the political situation was only growing more desperate (as the March 1879 rally in the Exposition Building would prove) and coming as it did during the height of Cincinnati’s construction of Music Hall, finally convinced them that it was time to get serious about construction of Chicago’s new hall.  In October 1877, Peck, together with Levi Leiter (whose Field, Leiter, and Co. Store was immediately to the south of its proposed site), incorporated a joint stock company for the expressed purpose of building the new “Central Music Hall.” Fairbank chaired this group’s first meeting on December 23, 1878, and construction began in May 1879.  In early 1879, however, Burling was indicted for malpractice (but was eventually acquitted) about the same time that the Central Music Hall design commission was ready to be awarded.  The owners had no desire to be associated with the legal problems of Burling, and offered the design to only Adler, who took the commission, dissolved the firm, and hung out his own shingle.

Map of the Loop, 1879. (Author’s collection)

The Central Music Hall has often been cited by historians as one of the country’s earliest mixed-use developments, but this claim is inaccurate as Chicago’s own Grand Pacific Hotel had already incorporated rental offices and stores as early as 1871.  This claim is also duplicitous because it tries to obscure the fact that while Cincinnati had the capital and the public civic-mindedness at this time to build a first-class performance facility, Chicago had no civic philanthropist at this time equal in spirit to Cincinnati’s Reuben Springer, and thus, was forced to include commercial space in the final design of its project in order to generate income to help pay for the building, even though it was less than half the size of Cincinnati’s.   The simple fact was that the mixed-use aspect of the Central Music Hall was a financial necessity, and not a prophetic experiment of what would become commonplace in the near future.

Adler, Central Music Hall. Plan and Section. (Siry, The Auditorium)

To ameliorate the apparent conflict in functions, Adler placed the 1800 seat auditorium to the east of, or in back of a six-story business block that faced State Street and turned the corner at Randolph. The first floor along State Street contained twelve stores flanking the centrally located red and gray granite main entrance to the auditorium.  The five upper floors contained 75 offices, the first sizable addition to the city’s office space inventory in six years, signaling the start of the long-awaited rebound of Chicago’s economy.  Although Adler had incorporated three triple-window groupings in the center of the State Street facade and a three-story arcade in the auditorium’s Randolph Street elevation, the conservative nature of his design and construction of the building’s Lemont limestone elevations is quite apparent when they are compared to the degree of openness achieved by Jenney at the same time in the red brick framework of the Leiter Building (see next post).

Adler pushed the auditorium to the sidewalk on the north, or Randolph face to gain indirect daylight with three three-story tall stained-glass windows.  Over these he located a number of artist’s studios (again for indirect north light) directly over the front of the hall.  As Hannaford had done in Cincinnati, Adler also included a smaller recital hall as well as meeting rooms for a variety of related societies. Although Adler’s engineering ability has also been spotlighted for the structural solution of the long-span wrought-iron trusses, the auditorium’s main bearing walls, in fact, had to be reinforced after the start of construction with iron columns inset into the walls to support the loads of the trusses. This may have been at the recommendation of Peter B. Wight, who had been asked by the owners to inspect Adler’s drawings prior to construction and had recommended a series of modifications.  The influence of Wight may also be read in Adler’s design of the Music Hall’s exterior, which bears a resemblance to Wight’s redesign of Richardson’s American Express Building.

Peter B. Wight, Revised Design of the American Express Building, Chicago, 1873. (The Land Owner, April 1874)

While Windy City boosters proffered the project as a response to Cincinnati’s Music Hall, in reality Adler had to design it as a church that could also accommodate a large audience for musical performances. Adler would turn to Cincinnati’s precedent for his point of departure.  As the acoustics of the Cincinnati Music Hall were considered to be excellent, Adler made no significant departures from its interior arrangement in his design and simply copied its two galleries, upward curving main floor, and the transverse-coved ceiling.  

Adler, Central Music Hall. Interior. Two of the three stained glass windows are visible. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors) Note the similarities with Cincinnati Music Hall below. (Painter, Music Hall)

These features once again resulted in very good acoustics, launching Adler on his career as Chicago’s premiere theater designer. The first church service consecrated the building on January 5, 1880.   The requirement that Adler had to design the interior primarily for Swing’s church services resulted in the exclusion of a stage and provisions for scenery, in favor of a pulpit framed by the church’s large organ, in fact the project’s only noteworthy challenge to Cincinnati.  Although the organ’s final size did not surpass that of Cincinnati’s, the design of the Chicago organ’s beautiful cherrywood screen most certainly did. 

Adler, Central Music Hall. Organ screen is believed to have been designed by Louis Sullivan. (Gregersen, Adler)

FURTHER READING:

Gregersen, Charles E.  Dankmar Adler: His Theaters and Auditoriums. Athens, Ohio University, 1990.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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