Adler and Sullivan, The Auditorium, Chicago, 1886. Design for the Auditorium, September 1886. Watercolor by Paul C. Lautrup. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Peck and his close associates Nathaniel K. Fairbank and Wirt D. Walker were most likely responsible for commissioning the initial design from Adler & Sullivan as a legal corporation for the project had not yet been formed.  It wasn’t until July 1886, that these three familiar names topped a petition to the Illinois legislature to organize the Chicago Grand Auditorium Association that would be authorized to issue stock to generate the funds necessary to purchase the land, build the structure, and manage its events.  Then in November with Adler & Sullivan’s preliminary design in hand, the association began to issue shares in the organization, of which Peck led the purchase by pledging $100,000, with an additional pledge of $30,000 by the Peck Estate.  Marshall Field was the only person who matched the estate’s (but didn’t come close to Peck’s personal) pledge of $30,000, while Martin Ryerson and Charles Counselman each pledged $25,000.   Fairbank, who had promised to donate $100,000 to the project five years earlier, would now only commit $10,000, as did Charles Hutchison, the president of the Art Institute and Edson Keith. 

Suspiciously it was also reported that Adler & Sullivan had also pledged $25,000.  I say suspiciously, as neither of the architects’ net worth even remotely approached that of the businessmen named above.  It is inconceivable that either of these architects could afford such an extravagant amount that equaled a full fifty percent of their total three-year design fee of $50,000 for the project. This begs the question of how and from whom did they get the money?  I suspect that Peck may have quietly advanced Adler & Sullivan the sum from his personal funds simply because truly neither architect, nor for that matter, their firm, could afford such a massive expenditure.  Lo and behold, at the end of the project, the Board reported that the firm was compensated the $50,000 design fee and with $25,000 in company stock.  Nonetheless, Peck’s ultimate motive in having Adler & Sullivan’s name appear on the public pledge list with such a large commitment was to ensure that they would eventually be awarded the design commission for the project.  As opposed to Henrotin and Kerfoot’s decision to hire a firm inexperienced in theater planning to design the Chicago Opera Block’s house, Peck was determined to use the same architects who had served him so well on past auditorium projects.  The thoroughness of Peck’s political anticipation with regards to this action would be vindicated within a month, as Burnham and Root, who had lost the commission for the Board of Trade some four years earlier due to a backroom deal, were also hard at work trying to secure Chicago’s largest architectural commission through their own supporters within the Association. Fresh from winning the competition for the Kansas City Board of Trade, they had confidence that they could also win a competition for the Auditorium (especially because they had written the W.A.A. rules for competitions).

By December 4, 1886, when the Association’s organizational meeting was chaired by Marshall Field, Peck had successfully widened the number of stockowners, purposefully to increase the number of Chicago’s residents who were personally invested in the scheme. (Approval of its incorporation by the State legislature was simply a formality because it didn’t occur until December 8, four days later.) Of course, this had opened the door for Burnham and Root to get their clients/supporters on to the Board of Directors.  In addition to Hutchinson (Art Institute) and Charles Counselman (Counselman Building), who had both pledged when the shares were first offered, William E. Hale (Midland Hotel), Norman B. Ream (Rookery), and Eugene S. Pike (Chicago Hotel-1890) had also purchased stock in the project.  These five represented some of Burnham & Root’s closest friends and clients, who were at the meeting in which Peck was elected as President. (Sullivan later noted that Hale was the leader of the opposition.) Rumors that some of the Board’s members were dissatisfied with Sullivan’s design of the exterior had been leaked to the Tribune prior to the meeting, undoubtedly to aid the Burnham & Root faction’s recommendation that a competition, as was done for the Kansas City Board of Trade, should be held to determine the architect for the project. This proposal was “strenuously opposed by the President, Mr. Ferd W. Peck, who stated that these architects (Adler & Sullivan) had really from the first been a part and parcel of the enterprise [hence, the reason for Peck’s preemptive $25,000 pledge made the month before by Adler & Sullivan with somebody else’s money], and without whose assistance nothing would have come out of the idea.”  While Burnham & Root’s supporters didn’t get the competition they were hoping for, they did get a compromise that effectively slowed down the rush to award Adler & Sullivan the commission so that another try could be mounted at a later date: Adler & Sullivan were told to produce “an amended plan, supplementary to the first,” that they did within a week which was formally presented to the Board at its next meeting on December 11.


Adler & Sullivan, Design for the Auditorium, December 1886. Watercolor by Paul C. Lautrup. (Siry, The Auditorium)

There were at least three months between the first and this second design.  At first glance, it is quite obvious that for whatever reason as we will investigate below, Sullivan had once again aped Richardson’s lead, this time adopting his new flat cornice of the Marshall Field Wholesale Store.   

H.H. Richardson, Marshall Field Wholesale Store, 1885. (Online)

The Field Store had literally begun to grow out of the ground during the intervening three-month period between Sullivan’s original design and this new one.  By December, its construction had sufficiently progressed to allow one to perceive its inherent monumentality, that was appreciated by many of those involved with the Auditorium project.  After all, its owner, Marshall Field himself was second only to Peck in being financially committed in the project and had chaired the organizational meeting that directed Adler & Sullivan to produce this alternative design.  Only the month before Adler himself had praised the Field Store:

“How American is Richardson’s reproduction of the somberness and dignity of the Palazzo Strozzi in the Marshall Field Building.”  Peck had also quickly taken to Richardson’s building, that he later revealed to the Inter-Ocean in January 1889: “What is more typical of the artistic taste of any people than the architecture of their community?… Where can our great business buildings be equaled?  Study the Field Mercantile Building… In no city on this continent will be found so much art in modern architecture.”  

After the Auditorium’s completion, Adler. in the April 1892 Architectural Record had reflected back upon how Richardson’s design had not only influenced the final design but also the Board’s corresponding reaction to Sullivan’s ornamental excess in these early designs: a “reaction from a course of indulgence in the creation of highly decorative effects on the part of its architects” in comparison to “the deep impression made by Richardson’s ‘Marshall Field Building’ upon the Directory of the Auditorium Association.”

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Left: Second Design; Right: First Design.

Sullivan had, for the most part, retained his original design of the lower seven floors, including its stone base and pressed brick upper stories. The only minor revisions were an increased number of the bay windows and the addition of a gratuitous arched window in the fourth floor that diluted the integrity of the original upper arcade.  In the eighth floor, Sullivan replaced the original run of continuous windows with a second, smooth-faced transition floor that was similar to the third floor, thereby framing the four-story arcade at its top and bottom, and making it cleaner for him to add the building’s two new additional floors.  The ninth floor comprised paired arched windows and the tenth floor was detailed as a highly ornate cornice punctuated with oval (these may have been circular that were skewed by perspective) windows.  While being much more restrained in its overall massing, Sullivan had more than compensated, however, by resorting to his earlier practice of increasing the amount of ornament as one worked their way up the façade to the finale in the cornice.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Left: First Design; Right: Second Design.

The other noticeable change in the second design was that the height of the tower had been increased from ten stories to fifteen and its hipped roof was replaced with an elongated pyramid.  Siry equated its shape to the top of an obelisk, specifically, the Washington Monument, then the tallest structure in the world.  Sullivan’s pyramid was projected to be 300’ high, an obvious challenge to the 303’ Board of Trade’s reputation of being the city’s tallest structure, and second, only to the Monument, as the tallest in the country.  Due to its southernmost location on the fringe of the business district, the proposed tower would have easily been the first object on the horizon that would have greeted visitors arriving from the east and south as their trains approached Chicago. 

Adler and Sullivan, The Auditorium, View from the south. (Siry, The Auditorium)

While the revised design generated more discussion at the Board’s next meeting, no action once again pertaining to the choice of an architect was taken: the Burnham & Root faction was in an obvious stall mode, playing for more time.  The Tribune reported on December 19 that the uncertainty among the board that although the architects and design “were about decided upon… there was a chance that there would be a radical change in both.” 


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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