2.15. ADLER’S DESIGN OF THE THEATER HOUSE

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Temporary Enclosure for the 1888 Republican National Convention, June 1888. (urbanremainschicago.com)

With the commitment of the Republicans in December 1887 to come to Chicago in June 1888, the Auditorium Board directed Adler to concentrate all construction efforts towards completing the theater house to a temporary level that would be usable for the convention.  As the design of the theater had been the primary reason for Peck’s insistence on Adler & Sullivan, Adler had brought all his knowledge of and experience with acoustics to bear on its design.  This, and more, would be required as not only did Peck want to build the largest opera house in the world, but also had some decidedly democratic ideals for the theater that were at odds with some of the primary design concepts of the traditional nineteenth century opera house.

Hannaford & Proctor, Music Hall, Cincinnati, 1877. (Online)

First, being built in Chicago during the 1880s, it had to be the world’s biggest opera house (Cincinnati had 3627 seats, La Scala in Milan had 3600 seats). From the standpoint of Peck’s dream of making the Auditorium the permanent location for all Presidential conventions, the Auditorium had to be larger than Cincinnati’s Music Hall, still the largest mixed-use combined Opera House/Convention Hall in the U.S.  One of the reasons for Music Hall’s record seating capacity had been a minimum of private boxes, something that Peck admired.  Music Hall had also been intentionally designed to be flexible in order to accommodate exhibitions and conventions, precisely the model that Peck had chosen for the Auditorium.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1778. (Online)

Besides feeding the bragging rights of the Windy City, the record size was also a result of Peck’s political agenda for the project that he expressed to a Tribune reporter on the eve of the convention: “to be that of affording a meeting ground for the people, where the working masses could experience the influence of the finest music.”  Peck confirmed this later in a letter he wrote to the stockholders just prior to the Auditorium’s grand opening on December 9, 1889: “They [European theaters] are built rather for the few than for the masses – the titled and the wealthy rather than for the people – lacking the broad democratic policy of providing for all which prevails in the arrangement of your Auditorium, thereby lessening the gulf between the classes.”      

Hannaford & Proctor, Music Hall. Banquet in honor of the completion of the Cincinnati & Southern Railroad, 1880. The house was designed so that a level floor could be installed to allow the hall to also perform as a banquet or ballroom floor. (Painter, Music Hall)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The raised floor installed for a banquet. (National Trust for Historic Preservation: savingplaces.org)

Therefore, Peck had directed Adler to copy Cincinnati’s Music Hall and eliminate all private boxes, as Edward Garczynski recorded in his 1890 book, The Auditorium: “for [Peck] had no belief in privileged classes, and regards the Metropolitan Opera of New York, where the whole structure is sacrificed to the boxes, with infinite scorn and patriotic dislike.  This was a repetition of effete European ideas, and if there was one thing he impressed upon the architects, it was that he wanted the Auditorium to represent the present and future and not the corrupted past.”  Peck’s objective could not have been more diametrically opposed to the goals of Alva Vanderbilt in her single-minded desire to erect an opera house with as many private boxes as the rich could afford (see Vol. 3, Sec. 10.9.). Peck’s design requirement was one of the reasons for the theater’s non-traditional appearance.  Instead of consisting of concentric layers of private boxes like the Met or the great European Opera Houses, the Auditorium would be a vast sea of 4237 individual seats: Peck’s vision of “democracy.” (A significant number of major stockowners, however, refused to go along with such a radical plan and forced Peck to incorporate a small number (twenty in two tiers on each side) boxes that would, indeed, showcase Chicago “leading citizens.”)

The more seats that were available meant that the price of those seats could be reduced accordingly while still generally covering the costs of producing the event.  Hence, Peck’s primary goal was to make events staged in the Auditorium more affordable to a greater number of people who did not have the income to afford the more expensive productions in Chicago’s smaller venues.  Even so, the Auditorium still had to be larger than Cincinnati’s Music Hall.  Unfortunately, as we will see, this specific objective would force Adler into incorporating two more balconies (a total of three) in the house because he could not effectively fit the required number of seats with only one balcony into the 92’ x 178’ dimensions that the site on Congress Street dictated using his acoustic design requirements.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Section. Note the three balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Because of Chicago’s high watertable, Adler could not lower the stage into the ground in order to reduce the height that patrons had to climb to the upper levels, but placed it, for all practical purposes, at grade.  This meant that the main floor of seating, the Parquet, would start at grade and slope up, off the ground.  (The ramification of this was that he could not reduce the number of stairs one had to climb to the upper balcony by depressing the stage and Parquet into the ground.) Adler, following his well-used “isocoustic curve” that had been developed in 1838 by Scottish engineer John Scott Russell, that generated a curve that delivered uninterrupted sightlines and sound direct from its origin on stage to every listener, was able to comfortably arrange 1442 seats within this level, as it rose 17’ before it intersected with the Upper Foyer, where he stopped the last row, 112’ from the stage’s footlights.  This also permitted the Upper Foyer to provide overflow seating whenever needed.  The Parquet was divided by an iron trellis into the Lower Parquet, whose access was gained through tunnel-like vomitoria from the Main Foyer, located at street level, while ticketholders in the Upper Parquet were required to climb the Grand Stairs one flight to the Upper Foyer.  For acoustic and sightline reasons, Adler minimized the dimension that the First Balcony overhung the Upper Parquet, but once having determined the appropriate starting point for the First Balcony, he let it rise 40’ on its way to the back of the house, completely covering the Upper Foyer.  This move generated the greatest number of seats, 1632, of the four seating levels.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Top: View of interior showing central skylight over the first balcony. Both of the curved partitions have been lowered, closing off the second and third balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium.)

Again, trying to minimize the problems with overhanging the First Balcony, he pushed the Second Balcony as far to the rear of the house as he could (without interfering with sightlines of the First Balcony) before he inserted a number of rows that resulted in an extra 526 seats.  The lowest of these rows, however, was located approximately six stories above the stage, that suggested that elevators would need to be provided to take these ticketholders to their seats.  Doing the math of these three levels reveals a capacity of 3600.  The 40 boxes, each holding five persons delivered another 200, bringing the total capacity to 3800, just a few more than Cincinnati’s 3627, assuming that they would never make any changes.  Just to make sure that the Auditorium would be as large as possible to minimize any chance of ever being overtaken, Adler had to find room for a Third Balcony.  He could have repeated his sectional design process one more time and placed this balcony above and to the back of the Second Balcony, minimizing the overhang, but he did not do this.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. View from the Third Balcony. Note at the top the curved partition is stored in the “Up” position. (HABS, IL-1007.)

Quite simply, this would have increased the volume of the house and the corresponding reverberation time beyond which his acoustic calculations would support.  In addition, these people would have been the equivalent of eight stories above and away from the stage, with the corresponding view and transportation problems (climbing eight flights of stairs was simply not acceptable, no matter what the price of the ticket was).  To reduce these potential problems, he decided to compromise the quality of the Second Balcony by hanging the Third Balcony over and in front of the Second, using steel tension rods dropped from the ceiling trusses.  He also had to hang bridges to this level from the stairway for its occupants to gain access to their seats.

With the addition of the 437 seats of the Third Balcony, Adler’s final design resulted in a capacity of 4237 seats, or as the theater’s manager, Milward Adams boasted, it was “the largest opera house in the world.”  Therefore, Chicago got a “two-fer,” because the Auditorium would not only surpass Cincinnati’s Music Hall, but it would also have more seats than the 3045 seats in the New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  But that number of seats represented neither the house’s maximum nor its minimum seating capacity for Peck’s vision embraced a wide-ranging variety of functions to be supported by the Auditorium.  At the upper end, for a national political convention for example, Adler had provided a number of variations that could increase its total capacity up to 8000.  By raising the proscenium’s reducing screen and rearranging the stage’s floor levels via its hydraulic sectional platforms, an extra 500 seats could be located on the stage.  By reorganizing the seats in the boxes and along their corridors, and by extending the Upper Parquet back into the upper foyer at the rear, a total capacity of 7000 seats could be accommodated.  Lastly, a raised floor could be installed over the orchestra and into the front part of the Parquet, copying Cincinnati’s design, that extended the stage floor level into the majority of the house that could provide a ballroom or convention floor to house 8000.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Top: Section showing the Skylight and the movable partitions in the “up” location. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City); Bottom: View of interior showing central skylight over the balcony, with Fluery’s mural “Spring Song.” Note that both of the movable partitions have been moved to the closed position, closing off the lower and upper galleries (Siry, The Auditorium, ).

At the other extreme, however, many musical events would generate less interest than the capacity of 4237, so the requirement of providing as many seats as possible for the Grand Opera performances had been a double-edged sword.  One concern over the vast size of the house voiced by performers during the design of the project was their worry over the possible demoralizing effect a performer might experience playing in front of a half-empty house. In addition, with so many seats available, there was little pressure felt among the city’s concert-going public to have to make the financial commitment in buying a series subscription ticket, the lifeblood of any orchestra or opera company.  One could almost always buy a ticket at the last moment with 4237 tickets available.  Adler tried to account for these concerns by providing hinged panels that could be lowered to close off the Third Balcony as well as the Second Balcony that would decrease the available seats by 437 or 963 respectively.  Each panel consisted of two 20-ton partitions that were so counterbalanced that it took a crew of only six men, each one at a winch, to raise or lower it in a matter of minutes.  Sullivan was able to design these panels so that they disappeared into the overall design of the house, no matter if they were open or closed.  The acoustics of the space wasn’t nearly as ambivalent to the panels’ location, however, as one would expect as Adler had to design the space to perform optimally at full capacity.  (The panels would quickly become unusable, a casualty to the extreme settlement of the perimeter walls that wreaked havoc with the relative “level” between the walls, the ceilings, and the rigid steel partitions. Finally, the number of seats could be further reduced to 2574 by closing off the back third of the First Balcony with the placement of curtains between the columns that supported the Lower Gallery.

Another significant departure that Adler made in the design of the theater was a direct result of acoustics.  Rather than giving the theater the traditional flat or slightly domed ceiling, Adler’s understanding of acoustics led him to configure the ceiling immediately in front of the stage as one large “speaking tube,” similar to how he had designed the ceiling of the 1885 Grand Opera Festival Hall in the Interstate Exposition Building.  His calculations had shown that the farther away from the original source of the sound the reflecting surface was, the longer time it took the reflected sound to reach the ear of a listener.  If this time differential was more than 1/10 of a second, the reflected sound produced not a perceived reinforcement of the original sound, but a distinct echo.  Hence, it was vital to the acoustical success of the design to bring the ceiling down towards the stage’s proscenium to reduce the distance (and the time) of the reflected sound.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. From right to left: the four vaults acting as the sound board; the central skylight; the three balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Adler had initially designed a series of four elliptical barrel vaults, each defined by an arch along its edge, that telescoped out to and over the audience until the last one intersected with the house’s central skylight (still required during the early days of electric lighting, if for no other reason than daytime cleaning) that ran the entire width of the house and fronted the three balconies.  Between each arch the vault’s ceiling was smooth-surfaced to act as a sound reflector:

“The spacing of these sections of ceiling is so calculated that sound waves from the stage are reflected downward to every part of the main floor and to part of the balcony.  A perfect semicircular reflecting arch would have focused all the reflected waves on one spot in the middle of the floor; the flat elliptical arches prevent focusing of reflected sound, and the vertical breaks between the arches throw the reflected waves farther and farther back, diffusing them over the entire area.”

The vault closest to the stage eventually had to be intersected with a cross-vault when a pipe organ was added to the theater to locate a screen for the pipes in order to provide sufficient height along the northern wall (a symmetrical screen was placed on the south wall which supplied fresh air).    

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Ground floor plan. Note that the theater is enclosed within a masonry wall. (Online)

The hall’s acoustic excellence had also been protected by Adler’s plan for the entire building, that had placed the theater completely within the interior of the site.This location allowed Adler to shield the hall from the noise of the three surrounding streets by placing 45’ deep single-loaded corridors of either hotel rooms or offices between the streets and the hall itself.  He then reinforced this isolation by surrounding the hall on all four sides with a solid masonry bearing wall that would also protect the hotel and office building from a potential fire in the theater. This last detail allowed Adler to construct a temporary hall independent of the exterior surrounding spaces, that was exactly what he had been ordered by the directors, in order to get the hall ready for the Republican convention in June 1888.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium temporary enclosure during the 1888 Republican National Convention. The stagehouse is in the foreground. Note that Adler got most of the third-story’s exterior erected in time. (Chicagology.com)

By March, Adler had finished the walls and had erected a temporary roof over the hall so that the final construction of the interior could commence.  This was completed by early June which allowed Adler to resume the erection of the original three-story granite base, hoping to have all three stories of it in place for the convention in order to give the out-of-town visitors an idea of its final configuration.  

Adler & Sullivan. The Auditorium during the 1888 Republican National Convention. (Chicagology.com); Inset: Detail of exterior stonework showing the transitional third story. (Author’s collection)

Sullivan had to revise the design of the third story after the Board had made the unilateral decision to change the upper eight stories from brick to limestone.  He still approached its design as a transitional layer, but now it had to transition from the two stories of dark gray, rock-faced Minnesota granite, to the smooth surface of the light gray Indiana limestone above. He did this by extending one feature of each layer into this transitional story: he continued the rock-faced surface of the first two floors into this story but used a granite from Maine that had a similar color to the limestone.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The 1888 Republican National Convention. (Online)

Following the successful convention that took place June 19-25 and had launched Benjamin Harrison’s campaign to unseat Cleveland, Peck took Adler on a well-deserved vacation during August and September, to study the famous European Opera Houses, specially the latest in stage and scenery equipment. Adler left Sullivan in charge of the office, then engaged in dismantling the temporary construction erected for the convention so that construction could resume.  When Adler returned, he found himself immediately confronted with more design changes ordered by the Board.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium under construction, June 1888. The theater’s temporary self-contained enclosure is visible, rising above the exterior. (Siry, The Auditorium)

FURTHER READING: 

Cannon, Patrick F. Louis Sullivan: Creating a New American Architecture. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate, 2011.

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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