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)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s