Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Congress Entrance to theater house. (historictheatrephotos.com)

While Adler managed the construction as it inexorably ground on during the summer and into the fall of 1889, Sullivan was furiously finishing off the building’s immense interior spaces. Finally, the last piece of stone, the copestone, was set in a Masonic ceremony on October 2.  Following a parade through the streets of the business district, the white-aproned Masons led the building’s dignitaries to the platform erected for the ceremony where after being introduced by Grand Master Pearson, Sullivan spoke the ritual words:

“Most worshipful Grand Master: having been entrusted with the duty of designing this edifice and of supervising and directing the workmen in its erection, and having been enabled to witness its completion, I now, with due respect present to you for inspection and approval the last stone (southwest corner of the tower’s parapet) that enters into its composition, and with it the implements of operative masonry, there being no further occasion for their use.

[the Grand master replied] Mr. Sullivan: From you, as the architect of this building, I accept the work, assuring you of my hearty approval, and will forthwith consecrate it according to ancient usage.

Over three and a half years had passed since Peck had first publicly announced the great endeavor at the Commercial Club, only weeks after the Haymarket Square bombing had changed the political and economic realities in Chicago.  Finally, it was time to plan the great celebration to mark its grand opening.  The local economy had gotten worse before it finally began to rebound in late 1888 with the election of Benjamin Harrison as President.  Then during the summer of 1889, a new challenge had slowly emerged on the horizon as Paris was enjoying the success and acclaim over its celebration of the centennial of the French revolution, more commonly referred to as the 1889 World’s Exhibition.  The idea of staging a similar fair in the U.S. in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery of the New World” was gaining momentum in the nation’s papers and among its politicians.  The main topic, of course, was where to hold the fair, and at least in Chicago, there was no question as to what was the best location.  A committee, that included Peck, to pursue the fair had been formed in August 1889 and was already hard at work (see Chap. 8).  And so, the grand opening of the Auditorium would serendipitously give the Windy City an opportunity for national exposure that could only aid its campaign to secure the 1892 World’s Fair.

The date for the Grand Opening was set for Monday, December 9, 1889, only five weeks after the Paris Fair had closed and was already part of history.  Of course, the President and Vice-President, who had been nominated in this very building some sixteen months earlier, would not only be invited, but whose presence would also be pivotal to Peck’s national ambitions for the entire project.  Their participation would also hopefully leave a positive impression with them as the debate over the Fair’s host city would heat up.  Regional, national, and even international dignitaries would need to be invited for the same two reasons.  And of course, the other given for the Opening Night, besides the attendance of the President, would be the headline performer for the evening: the country’s favorite prima donna, the beloved Adelina Patti, “the sovereign of song.”

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Entry vestibule. The back of the stained glass tympanums located over the entry doors. Present condition, after the three front interior bays adjacent to the sidewalk had been removed in order to widen the Congress Expressway. Note that three stairs had to be added to compensate for the tower’s excessive settlement. (Photo courtesy Jyoti Srivastava: chicago-architecture-jyoti.blogspot.com)

Those attending the gala who had tickets in either the Parquet or the First Balcony would be delivered by carriage to the theater’s entrance at the base of the tower on Congress Street.   (Those whose tickets were in the less expensive galleries were provided with their own “separate but equal” entrance on Wabash that gave direct access to a bank of elevators so that there would be minimal interaction between these two groups.)  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Main Foyer, looking back at the Entry doors and their stained-glass tympanums. The asymmetric, lower ceiling in the aisle at the right interferes with the view of the last two tympanums. (Cannon, Louis Sullivan)

From Congress Street, one proceeded under one of the three arches within the tower’s base and into the two-story vestibule in which one could purchase tickets or wait for one’s companions.  Passing through one of six sets of doors, each marked with a stained-glass tympanum, an usher would check tickets and then the concertgoer would enter the Main Foyer. Each tympanum personified one of the six forms of art that Peck had planned would be celebrated in his building: Dance, Drama, Music, Oratory, Poetry, and Wisdom.







Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The six tympanums over the entrance doors to the theater. (youtube.com/watch?v=XWTfHMLm3q4)

Unfortunately, the Main Foyer, unlike its contemporary counterparts the Cincinnati Music Hall or the Paris Opera House, was not an appropriately-scaled monumental public space but a dimly lit, low-ceilinged space that felt more like a dark, monotonous rabbit warren.  Sullivan had designed this space as a modular assembly employing the same spatial leitmotif that he would employ throughout the theater: a cubic box defined by the placement of arched plaster soffits between the structural columns of the building. It is thought that Sullivan took the curved profile of Adler’s four cycloid vaults over the Parquet and restated this throughout the theater.

As Sullivan had been influenced by Richardson’s design of the exterior of the Field Wholesale Store, I believe that Sullivan was also influenced by Richardson’s spatial detailing in the Grand Stair of the Allegheny County Courthouse. The Pittsburgh building was sufficiently completed for Sullivan to have taken a train to Pittsburgh to inspect its interior while he was conceptualizing his own interior design. The difference between the two, however, was that Richardson’s was a stone structural bay (requiring an arch) while Sullivan’s was merely a curved plaster soffit located between two steel columns.

Left: Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. The spatial module used by Sullivan throughout the interior. A spatial cube defined by an arched plaster soffit spanning all four sides of the bay; Right: H.H. Richardson, Allegheny County Courthouse, Grand Stair. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City; Online)

Of course, we have also seen that Sullivan had experimented with a visually similar detail in the boxes for McVicker’s Theater in 1883, albeit this was a cantilevered structure growing from the center of the bay (similar to how Wright would later design the Johnson Wax columns), whereas in the Auditorium this detail lined the perimeter of each bay.

Adler & Sullivan, McVicker’s Theater (remodeling). Drawing by Sullivan for the design of Private Boxes, dated Jan. 9, 1883 (this was part of their 1883 design, not the final late 1884 design.) (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

As David Van Zanten (Sullivan’s City) has traced the evolution of Sullivan’s ornamental abilities by analyzing the maturity of each ornamental detail and relating it to his chronological development over the two years it took to design the building, we can do a similar analysis with Sullivan’s maturing understanding of spatial design.  The spaces that he was first confronted with to design, the auditorium and its circulation, were all designed as assemblies of the box-like modules, no matter whether their function was a private box, an inglenook, or the Main Foyer. 

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Partial Ground Floor Plan. I have labelled the 18 bays of the Main Foyer: L-Left Aisle; C-Center Aisle; R-Right Aisle; and numbered the bays 1 through 6. I would like to have eliminated the curved soffits between L3/L4/C3/C4 to create a “center” in line with the Grand Stair (and maybe to open up a portion of the ceiling in these bays as well.) In the far upper left corner is the Wabash Street entrance and elevator lobby.

In the Main Foyer, he had simply repeated the box 18 times over the three-by-six grid of structural bays allocated to the space, arranging them in three aisles, inline with the three entry arches, (left, central, and right) of six bays each. The result was a rather dark (before the later installation of more effective electric lighting), spartan pedestrian space without any spatial sense of hierarchy or excitement, that revealed his inexperience with the design of such spaces. In fact, even with these eighteen modules, he had to compromise on the ceiling height (lower) of those in the right aisle, adjacent to the vomitoria that led to the Parquet, destroying any chance of a symmetric space about the central row of six bays.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Here it is obvious that Sullivan was forced to “shoehorn” the right aisle under the descending floor of the seating above.

(Contemporary apologists for the building claim that Sullivan had purposefully designed it this way to create a sequence of “compression and release”. The fact is that Sullivan had no choice in the height of the space simply because the entire building was “designed with a shoehorn”: a maximum number of seats and rentable areas left little room for anything else.) At the bare minimum, Sullivan could/should have eliminated the arched beams in the center four bays (L3/L4/C3/C4) that would have been an attempt at the creation of a hierarchy of a central space surrounded by the modules ringing its periphery. (To Sullivan’s credit, he was a fast learner because he did just this at the top of the Grand Stairway as it opened onto the Upper Foyer.) And could not at least the two central bays immediately adjacent to the Grand Stair have had their ceilings opened up (similar to the Cincinnati Music Hall that was the same size…) giving some relief to its claustrophobic monotony, and thereby, creating at least a two-story central space that would have revealed the presence of and made a connection with the Upper Foyer in some relation with the Grand Stair? (However, this would have reduced the floor area in the Upper Foyer where more temporary seats could be located, and would have been nixed by the owners.) One can only wonder what Root, whose magnificent atrium in the Rookery had just been opened to the public, would have choreographed in this location?

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Central Aisle of Main Foyer. (Historic American Buildings Survey ILL,16-CHIG,39—81)

Upon entering the Main Foyer, one either turned right and proceeded directly into the Lower Parquet via vomitoria (entry tunnels), or turned left to ascend the Grand Stair to the upper seating levels.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Central Aisle, looking right to lower Right Aisle and vomitoria leading to Parquet. Using the Central Aisle as the main axis of the Main Foyer, the asymmetry of this space is obvious. (Author image)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Central Aisle, looking left to the Left Aisle and Grand Stairway. Obviously, the chandeliers were not original but added badly needed illumination.. (urbanremainschicago.com)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. The Grand Stairway. Removing the curved soffits would have made the space more open; one also might have opened the ceiling to visually connect the Upper Foyer with the Main Foyer, signaling its presence and inviting one to ascend. (Historic American Buildings Survey ILL,16-CHIG,39—82)
Hannaford & Proctor, Cincinnati Music Hall, Foyer. (Online)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Landing of Grand Stairway. Enjoy how the space begins to open up at the Upper Foyer with the curved partitions eliminated. (National Trust for Historic Preservation: savingplaces.org)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Grand Stair at Upper Foyer. In order not to divide the stair down to the Main Foyer, they split the pier into two columns. While they kept the ceiling beam in its original location, they removed the curved soffit, allowing the two bays in front of the stair to read as one space. This could have been done in the Main Foyer below to create a more interesting spatial hierarchy. (Cannon, Louis Sullivan)

Sullivan then continued to use the cubic modules throughout the rest of the theater, including in the intermission inglenooks and the private boxes.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Inglenook with fireplace off the Upper Foyer. (Cannon, Louis Sullivan)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. The Upper Foyer.
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Upper tier of private boxes. (National Trust for Historic Preservation: savingplaces.org)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Theater. Box seats in Lower Tier, showing Sullivan’s spatial leitmotif of repetitive cubes defined by the arched partitions. Note how Sullivan has moved to the use of a much more abstracted geometry in the stencils lining the upper curved knee wall. (Siry, The Auditorium)


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

de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

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.

Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

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



Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The corner of Congress and Wabash, showing the office floors. Note the dual-arched Entrance at the far end of the Wabash ground floor. This served the office floors, the upper balconies of the theater, and the recital hall. (Chicagology)

When Adler had returned in September 1888 from his two-month tour of Europe with Peck, in addition to being told by the Directors to add the seventeenth floor to the tower, he was also directed to focus on completing the office portion (a total of 136 offices) of the building in order to have it ready to lease by the traditional start date of May 1, 1889, so that it could generate some badly-needed revenue.  While he was in Europe, the Auditorium directors had turned their attention to completing the office portion of the building that they had added to the program on the same time (May 6, 1887) that they had changed the exterior material from brick to stone.  The original plan for the project since its inception had been to wrap the theater along the site’s three public street fronts with a first-class European hotel, but as the project grew out of the ground the harsh financial realities of this idea began to be fully comprehended.  The most important realization was that the placement of the theater in the middle of the site had forced Adler to relocate most of the traditional public functions of a hotel (lobby, bar, barber, etc) that were typically placed in the center of a hotel plan, to the perimeter of the building on the Ground Floor.  This took the place of the traditional rental commercial space along the sidewalk that hotels had traditionally used to generate income that, of course, was still desperately needed by the Auditorium’s owners, and forced them to change the hotel floors west of the tower and along Wabash to rentable office space.  It is somewhat surprising that it took so long into the project for the Board to appreciate this aspect of Adler’s design.

The decision in September 1888 by the Board to fast-track the rental office space revealed the fact that by this time, the Auditorium was not only accepted as a success, but had generated a synergy in real estate values similar to that fostered by the move of the Board of Trade, some six years earlier.  The Tribune reported, “Undoubtedly the erection of the Auditorium building was the prime cause of the [real estate] transactions, that structure now being looked upon as the center of a new business district.”  As was the case with the Board of Trade deal, those who were “on the inside” of the project from its beginning stood to make a killing in speculation if they bought the right property at the right time.  Repeating the success of the Board of Trade deal in getting the city to purchase land from a small group of its directors in order to extend La Salle Street (before they returned and asked for it back, free of charge to build the building upon), a proposal to widen Congress Street in the immediate vicinity to reduce the expected congestion of carriages in front of the theater’s entrance, was passed by City Council on February 1889. Congress Street would be widened along its southern edge from 66’ to 100’ by the city purchasing the needed 34’ from the owners of the lots across the street. Apparently, no one understood this potential better than Nathaniel K. Fairbank, the Auditorium’s second Vice-President, who by the start of 1889 had purchased three lots across the street from the construction site.  This may explain what I had noted earlier, that while he had originally pledged $100,000 in 1881 towards Peck’s project, when it came time to put his money where his mouth was in November 1886, he only gave a tenth of this sum to the project.  It would seem that some of the remainder of this amount was spent on real estate speculation.  Peck’s brothers had also handsomely profited from a series of purchases they had made along Wabash Street.


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Section showing the Dining Hall at the Tenth Floor of the hotel and the four floors of the kitchen located over the Stage’s flyspace. (Inland Architect, July 1888)

As construction of the theater’s permanent interior continued through the fall of 1888, the attention of the Board then shifted to the last phase of design and construction, the 400-room hotel.  As of yet, a manager for the hotel had not been secured as the Association did not intend to run the hotel, but to lease its space to a company that had the expertise to run such an operation.  Hence, Adler & Sullivan had been on their own up to this point in programming the hotel (for which they had little experience and explains why the office space had to be added at the later date).  On July 6, 1888, the Board directed Adler & Sullivan (Adler didn’t depart for Europe until the end of the month) to make the top floor of the Michigan Avenue side into the hotel’s Dining Room.  While elevated dining rooms in the more upscale hotels were just becoming fashionable, and obviously the higher a guest was in the Auditorium, the better the view of the lake was, the primary reason for this decision during the time before effective forced mechanical ventilation, was to elevate the kitchen and its cooking odors to minimize their impact on the hotel’s guests.   But there were other design advantages to moving this room to the top floor, principally among them the ability to create a column-free space that Adler & Sullivan did by using arched trusses to span between the walls.    Adler located the new four-story kitchen on the trusses that spanned the loft space over the stage’s flytower and linked it to the Dining Room with a series of short bridges.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Above: Original Section. Note that this drawing was completed before the Banquet Hall had been added, which is visible (arrow) in the lower drawing. (Inland Architect, July 1888; Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

Prospective managers in Chicago were interviewed but either were unimpressive or not interested, forcing Peck to expand his search to New York.  By February 1889, a management contract was seriously being hammered out with James H. Breslin, long-time manager of the Gilsey House, and Richard Southgate, who had been the manager of the Brunswick Hotel.  These two well-experienced Manhattan hoteliers were interested in forming a company to manage the new hotel in Chicago, but one requirement that they insisted upon in order to increase potential revenues was the addition of a banquet hall smaller than the Dining Room that could be rented out for more exclusive private occasions.  The contract was signed on April 20, and once again, Adler was informed to make another change, but by this time the building was nearing completion.  The only space remaining on the site large enough for such a room was over the theater at the seventh floor, immediately between the front of the stage’s flytower and the theater’s main skylight.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Birdseye overview showing how Adler shoehorned the Banquet Hall between the stage tower/kitchen, at the back, and the theater’s central skylight in the foreground. This also gives a rare glimpse of the hotel corridor’s elevation. (Historic American Building Survey, #IL-1007-62)

Therefore, Adler had no alternative but to literally build a 120’ long bridge at the seventh floor over the theater’s already-completed roof that spanned between the two lateral masonry walls that enclosed the theater.  He designed two 15’ deep steel trusses that spanned the entire width of the theater, within which Sullivan could then design the requisite Banquet Hall that seated 300.  Immediate access for private guests would be provided by an elevator that was accessible through the Ladies’ Entrance on Congress Street. As was the case with the change from the brick exterior to the limestone veneer and the added seventeenth floor to the tower, this would add even more weight to these particular foundations than Adler had originally designed them for and would also cause greater settlement.  He tried to minimize this by employing trussed structural members and plaster fireproofing that weighed less than conventional iron framing and terra cotta fireproofing.  Again more calculations had to be made and more drawings had to be printed.  There would be no profit, but more than likely, a significant loss for the architects on this project (which fact only compounds the suspicious nature of Adler & Sullivan’s “initial subscription of $25,000 of stock”).

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium Hotel. Steel framing for the Banquet Hall. Note the Stagehouse to the far right; the Central skylight over the theater is just visible on the left, beyond the trusswork. (Siry, The Auditorium)


de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

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.

Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

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