CHAPTER 2: PLANNING THE AUDITORIUM

While Adler & Sullivan’s remodeled McVicker’s Theater had opened with rave reviews on July 1, 1885, the opening of Cobb & Frost’s new Chicago Opera House theater the following month was met with complete dissatisfaction (Vol. 3, Sec. 8.12). The theater’s owners had to admit their initial error in hiring Cobb & Frost, a firm without any prior experience in the design a theater and consequently hired Adler & Sullivan to completely remodel the auditorium’s interior once the theater’s premiere season ended in June 1886 that was completed in less than two months. Nonetheless, by the end of 1886 Chicago still did not have a large music venue comparable to either Cincinnati’s Music Hall or New York’s new Metropolitan Opera House.  

2.1. FERDINAND PECK STRUGGLES TO LAUNCH HIS AUDITORIUM, UNTIL THE HAYMARKET ERUPTS

Adler & Sullivan, 1885 Chicago Grand Opera Festival Hall, Chicago Expo Building, 1885. (Chicagology)

(I am indebted to Joseph Siry’s excellent history of the Auditorium, The Chicago Auditorium Building, for much of this chapter.) The overwhelming success of Ferdinand Peck’s 1885 Grand Opera Festival held in the Exposition Center between April 6-18 had closed on its last night with an encore call for Peck to address the audience that he eventually was coerced into doing:

”[The festival] had shown what Chicago would and could do, and [he] hoped that people would look upon this as a stepping stone to a great permanent hall where similar enterprises would have a home.  The continuation of this annual festival, with magnificent music, at prices within reach of all, would have a tendency to diminish crime and Socialism in our city by educating the masses to higher things.”

With these prophetic words, Peck had launched his campaign to finance and construct just such a permanent facility.  Only ten days later, on April 28, 1885, as dignitaries from all over the country were gathered in the Trading Room of the new Board of Trade for the grand opening banquet, Peck’s publicly-stated concern over the growing Socialist menace appeared prescient as Albert Parsons had led the IWPA protest march down La Salle Street in an attempt to disrupt the banquet.  Although we have seen that the police were prepared and peacefully redirected the protest to another site, the IWPA called for a massive protest meeting to occur five days later in Lake Park (at the intersection of Van Buren and Michigan) for Sunday, May 3.  In this heated atmosphere, Peck, as President of the Chicago Opera Festival, had risen to address its annual meeting only the day before, May 2, and announced that a committee had, indeed, been formed to direct a campaign to secure the erection of the ever-elusive permanent music hall for Chicago. 

“Many of your members and other citizens as well as myself have thought for a long time that one of our greatest needs in Chicago was a large public auditorium, where conventions of all kinds, political and otherwise, mass meetings, reunions of army organizations, and, of course, great musical occasions in the nature of festivals, operatic and otherwise, as well as other large gatherings could be held…

“Chicago can be made the convention city of the continent.  She can now furnish all needed conditions but one necessary to attract every important convention of a National character, as well as those that are more local in their nature in the Northwest or in the State.  This city has the geographical location, is rapidly becoming more nearly the center of population, is exceptionally accessible, being the great railroad center; we have an attractive climate, especially in the summer, because of the cooling lake breezes, but lack one essential element, to wit, a place in which to hold such conventions or gatherings – a large, permanent public hall…

“The large cities of Europe all have great halls and gathering places.  New York has three large audience rooms.  Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis have their great music halls, the two latter of which have a seating capacity of over 4000 each, and were built by the philanthropy of citizens: yet Chicago, which is larger than any of the cities of this country which I have mentioned, except New York and Philadelphia, has no permanent or suitable auditorium for such occasions.

“Now how is this to be accomplished in Chicago?…

“Now gentlemen, shall we let this exceptional opportunity go by, as others have done during the last fifteen years, and wait perhaps twenty or more years for as favorable a basis and conditions for this accomplishment of this important purpose, and permit our sister cities, which are behind us in every other important respect, to reach out for the great conventions and musical festivals which the education and the entertainment of our people demand, as well as our business interests; or shall we now avail of the proposition presented to us, to do a “big thing” for our city of Chicago, that we must recognize to be a public need and one which ‘will pay?’”

But nothing of any consequence came of Peck’s efforts for over a year, that is, until the Haymarket erupted a year and two days following Peck’s talk. May 4, 1886, changed the calculus once and for all in favor of Peck’s dream.

2.2. SECURING A SITE

Initially Peck had tried to replicate Cincinnati’s Music Hall, even down to the method of its financing.  The city of Cincinnati had donated the land upon which the Music Hall had been built that had significantly reduced the overall cost of the project (Vol. 2, Sec.6.8).  Peck was committed to securing a site on the west side of Michigan Avenue obviously for its view of the lake, the exposure it would receive along the city’s main buggy promenade, and to avoid any legal questions of ownership that would arise if it was located on the east side of the street in Lake Park, as had been the case with the Exposition Center.  This meant that the land he wanted for the project would be expensive as it was in the business district.  The money that he would have to voluntarily raise would be significantly lower if he could get the city to donate the land.  His first choice of a site that he had pursued after his premature announcement in May 1885 had been Dearborn Park, the only unoccupied site on the west side of Michigan, bounded by Randolph and Washington Streets.  It was unoccupied because it had been reserved as public property to be a park when the city had first been chartered.  A group that was promoting a new public library was also eyeing this property at the time, so Peck had initially proposed a joint building that combined the theater and the library.  But this effort was rebuffed by his opponents claiming that he was proposing to use publicly-dedicated land for a semi-private function.  

Early in 1886 he had to admit defeat and modified his approach to an entirely privately-funded operation and so shifted his interest to the corner of Monroe and Michigan (that would have placed it directly across from the Exposition Center, and created a convenient and impressive convention facility), but again ran into stiff opposition. At this point, it appears that he and his close associates moved their focus four blocks farther south to the edge of the business district at  Congress Street, where real estate would be less expensive. An added benefit of this location would be that it overlooked the IWPA’s Lake Park rally location.  Peck had first denied the IWPA use of the Exposition Center after the 1885 Opera Festival by paying the $1000 annual rent demanded by union supporters on Council.  Now he was attempting to hinder their access to their lakefront rally point as well.  Finally, in March 1886, just prior to the Haymarket bombing, Wirt D. Walker procured an option for two small, adjacent lots on Congress, just east of Wabash, and set in motion the securing of the lots bounded by Michigan, Congress, and Wabash as the eventual site for the project (at the southern edge of the business district).  

Adler and Sullivan, The Auditorium, View from the south. Note that Michigan Avenue, south of Congress still has its residential scale. Truly, the site was the southern edge of the business district. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Walker was the son of the late James M. Walker (Root’s father-in-law from his first marriage) who had named his son after his junior law partner, Wirt Dexter. (Hence, the common confusion between Wirt Dexter and Wirt D. Walker.)  The younger Walker had been named the executor of his father’s estate and had inherited his father’s fortune upon his death in 1882.  He was just 21 years old at the time, having just graduated from Yale.  He was accepted into Chicago’s Union College of Law, graduated in 1883, and had immediately went to work for his namesake in his father’s former firm. 

2.3. THE HAYMARKET BOMBING IGNITES THE PLANNING

Then the Haymarket Square bombing had occurred, imparting a new sense of urgency to Peck and his fellow businessmen, for in their eyes their greatest fear, the Paris Commune had finally reared its ugly head in Chicago and it had to be cut off at any expense as soon as possible.  While the police and legal system were loosed on the city’s Socialist agitators, a campaign of pacification and education of the city’s middle class was put into motion.  Peck relaunched his campaign for the permanent hall in front of Chicago’s Commercial Club on May 29, 1886, only twenty-five days after the bombing, during an all-day conference held at the Grand Pacific Hotel titled ”The late Civil Disorder: Its Causes and Lessons.”  The Commercial Club had been founded in 1877 in response to the violent railroad strike of that year in order to develop an agenda to refute such political agitation as well as to improve the city’s economic competitiveness.  Many of its members also belonged to the Chicago Citizen’s Association, whose founder, Franklin MacVeagh, was the current president of the Club.  Peck presented his vision for “a large public auditorium.”  Its overarching purpose was to act as an alternative to the Socialist’s agenda of political theater by presenting cultural events at affordable prices to the middle class, thereby helping to improve the social stability of Chicago.  Peck’s vision for the project, therefore, far exceeded mere opera, and he had carefully chosen a specific name for the project that embraced his broad vision.  It was not to going to be called an Opera House, but “The Auditorium.”  

While most historians quote the Metropolitan Opera House as its model and target, Peck had cited “political conventions” as one of the project’s main functions: “to have the Republicans and Democrats meet in Chicago every time [as had actually happened in the previous year] they nominate a candidate for President and Vice-President.”  The Metropolitan Opera House was never designed to, nor would ever house a political convention.  The only facility in the country at the time that fit Peck’s description was Cincinnati’s Music Hall.  As Cincinnati had resorted to art, culture, and conventions to maintain its economy after Chicago had superseded its industrial primacy following the end of the Civil War, Chicago would attempt the same trick to offset the loss of business confidence that had resulted from the Haymarket Square bombing.  It had taken Chicago eight long years to respond to its southern competitor’s last challenge to Chicago’s dominance in the Midwest, but the time had finally come to put the final nail in the Queen City’s coffin.  But once again, Chicago still had to look to the Queen City for its precedent.

“Chicago exceeded in all commercial things.  As it had taken the pork market and the railroad hub from Cincinnati, the real center of population, so the Garden City grasped to the end, arrogating that last glory of the Ohio metropolis, even her baseball championship.” Building Budget, May 1887

FURTHER READING: 

Historic American Buildings Survey-The Auditorium: https://loc.gov/pictures/item/il0091/

Morrison, Hugh, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. 1935. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

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.

Twombly, Robert and Narciso Menocal. Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture. New York: Norton, 2000.

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

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