Of course, Sullivan would employ his nonhistorical, personal language to ornament the vast surfaces he faced, but what would be his inspiration? What theme or concept should he employ? Where should he place the ornament, what colors should he use, and how would he provide electrical illumination were just some of the major decisions he faced. Fortunately, he did not face this immense task alone as Healy & Millet were once again contracted to collaborate with Sullivan, especially in the design and production of much of the building’s interior’s ornamentation. He then got word in February 1888 of a twenty-year old draftsman working in Joseph Silsbee’s office who might be just the type of assistant capable of doing what he needed. He sent word to the young man that he would like to interview him. His name was Frank Wright, he appeared the next day with a set of drawings, the two of them hit it off from the start, and Sullivan had found his righthand man for the Auditorium project and placed him in charge of the drafting room. The timing of the interview couldn’t have been better for either party.
Sullivan revealed his overarching principles in his design process in an article, “Plastic and Color Decoration of the Auditorium,” that he wrote in 1891 for Industrial Chicago, “The plastic and color decorations are distinctly architectural in conception. They are everywhere kept subordinate to the general effect of the larger structural masses and subdivisions, while lending to them the enhancement of soft tones and of varied light and shade.” As a devoted follower of Richard Wagner, the leading composer of the era, Sullivan had employed not only Wagner’s idea of the leitmotif in his use of the spatial module of the arched-paneled box to compose his spaces, but also Wagner’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk or a “total work of art” in ornamenting the interior of the building.
Thus, the four main elliptical arches that spanned the great hall were given the primary focus by being “treated in a scientific manner. They are dark at the base and light at the springing of the arch. This gives atmosphere and lightness to the arch.” A reporter from the Chicago Herald seemed to have immediately perceived Sullivan’s approach during the opening night, “All of the petty ornamentation and excess of pretentious gingerbread work common to the minor theatres are lacking, and in place thereof there is breadth and dignity of treatment that harmonizes with the massive characteristics of the structure.”
Then Sullivan had to also choose a color, “A single idea or principle is taken as a basis of the color scheme [in each public room], that is to say, use is made of but one color in each instance, and that color is associated with gold. The color selected varies with each room treated, but the plan of using one color with gold is in no case departed from. Thus the main Auditorium is in old ivory and gold…in graded tones.” Sullivan chose a warm, but neutral ivory for the base color for the theater, using an oil paint, and then applied 23-carat gold leaf to create highlights around the room. “You were not satiated or overpowered by the decorations. In light there is no satiety; and richness was kept from being overpowering because it was expressed in white and gold. It was sumptuous and chaste.”
Peck had approved the increased expense of gold leaf as a good, long-term value as it did not need to be restored periodically, therefore, its maintenance costs over time would be minimal. Red, the overwhelmingly traditional color for theater interiors, was consciously banned for its obviously political overtone of symbolizing the Communist cause. The colors in the theater would, instead, vary depending upon the season, as it would be provided by the women’s outfits, which were set off by the black coats of the men: “there sloped back from the parquet a stretch like a flower garden.”
Here at this point, most designers would have stopped, satisfied with their creation, however, Sullivan truly had yet to begin “to design.” George Elmslie, an office draftsman at the time may have best stated his boss’s process, “Sullivan creates his designs by ‘communing’ with the problem far away from pencil and paper. This method he urges upon us all.” Sullivan chose his theme for the space characteristically not from history, but from nature; the cycles of nature and human life: growth and decadence. There was, seemingly, no two points in the space that had the same color, as he tinted the color ever darker as one’s eyes moved farther away from the stage. As the eye also moved across the room from the south of the hall (right side) to the north (left side), he also darkened the color, as a metaphor of the sun’s daily path. This cyclical theme was reinforced with two murals located at either end of the central skylighted space that were painted by French-trained Alfred Francis Fleury. On the lighter, southern wall was located “Spring Song,” in which the sky was portrayed at early morning light with a warm, light blue sky:
“A scene at dawn within a wooded meadow, by a gently running stream. The poet is abroad to greet the lark; the pale tints of sunrise suffuse the landscape; the early tinge of green is over all; the joy of this awakening life deeply touches the wandering poet, who sings in ecstasy, “O soft melodious springtime, first born of life and love!”
Facing it on the opposite, northern wall was “Autumn Reverie” with its cold gray sky at dusk:
“The scene is of pathless wilds, in gray, subsiding autumn, where brown leaves settle through the air, descending one by one to join the dead, while winds, adagio, breathe shrill funeral lamentations… Sadly musing, the poet turns to descend into the deep and somber valley, conscious that “a great life has passed into the tomb, and there awaits the requiem of winter’s snows.”
The two murals and their respective themes were brought together by a third mural painted by Charles Holloway with the theme, ”The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of Nature,” that spanned above the proscenium arch:
“The central painting… expresses in its many minor figures the manifold influence of music on the human mind…while a deeper meaning, conveying the rhythmic significance of life’s song, is embodied in special groups and figures… At the right [spring] is an altar on which burns the lambent flame of life. Before it poses an exultant figure typifying the dawn of life, the springtime of the race, the early flight of imagination. At the left [autumn] another altar is seen on which a fire is burning and flickering toward its end; near it the type of twilight, of memory, tenderness and compassion, stands with yearning, outstretched arms. The central group signifies the present, the future, and the past. The present, a lyre in her hand, sits enthroned, the embodiment of song, of the utterance of life. Toward her all the elements of the composition tend, and at this focal point is developed their full significance and power, for the present is the magical moment of life; it is from the present that we take the bearings of the future and of the past.”
To light the space, Adler & Sullivan eliminated the traditional chandelier (the ubiquitous “Sword of Damocles”), replacing it with electric lights that once again followed the lines of the arches (when dimmed, they resembled the stars outside of the roof, ”instead of rafters the hall was roofed with ivory and gold and starred with electricity”). Sullivan designed the plaster rosettes in which the base of each bulb was placed whose ornate profile was highlighted by the soft glow of the clear incandescent bulb, as Adler so ably described: “The use of richly-modulated plastic surface ornament is an important aid to successful color decoration. It gives a rare interest to even the simplest scheme of color distribution by the introduction of modulations of light and shade, by the contrast variation of perspective effects, and by the brilliancy of the protuberant points and edges as they catch and reflect the light.”
Sullivan designed a geometric pattern that lined each of the major ceiling arches in which hexagons (or pentagons depending upon its location within the arch) within which Sullivan had located the electric light bulbs, alternated with diamonds that containing the custom designed semispherical ventilation air grills that supplied the room from air ducts within the arches themselves, with heated or chilled fresh air as required by the outside temperature. Edward Garczynski, who was hired by the Association to write the official publication documenting the history of the building’s design and construction, may have best summed up Sullivan’s response to Peck’s challenge of employing nothing originating from Europe or the past in the design of the Auditorium: “It is indubitable that there is within these walls an architecture and a decorative art that are truly American, and that owe nothing to any other country or any other time.”
de Wit, Wim, ed. Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.
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.
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