While workmen had strained to complete the interior of the Auditorium, Sullivan had moved on to designing the interiors of the various spaces in the Hotel portion of the building. He was gaining confidence in his design abilities and theory with each new challenge he faced, applying the lessons he had learned from the mistakes he found in his earlier designs as they were constructed. Chief among these, I believe, was his mistake to take a “modular” approach in the forming of the larger public spaces in the theater, i.e., the monotonous repetition of the cubic “boxes” in the Main and Upper Foyer. I already pointed out that he quickly revised this idea in the Upper Foyer where it met the Grand Stairs by eliminating the curved soffits in the two bays immediately in front of the Grand Stair and by removing the main pier between these two bays at the base of the Stair by replacing it with two columns pushed to either side of the Stair, thereby combining these two bays into one larger space that formed a “lobby” for the Stair at this point.
He employed this detail at a larger scale in the Hotel’s lobby, eliminating all the curved soffits in favor of a more conventional beam and column language, that allowed all of the structural bays to be read as a single, “grand” space. He also repeated the elimination of the column between the two bays within which he had placed the Grand Stair. This time choosing not to split the column into two minor ones as he had done in the Upper Foyer but using a larger arch to span both bays.
Being dropped off at the triple-arched entry on Michigan Avenue, a hotel guest proceeded through the doors into a two-story lobby similar in scale to the theater’s Vestibule. The reception desk in the Lobby was positioned immediately to the right, from where one then moved left to the Grand Stair that spilled into the space under the 34’ monumental arch (above which Adler had to locate a steel transfer beam to replace the column that supported the nine stories of columns above, that he had to remove to create the span). This arch was flanked by smaller arches that recapitulated the three-arched entry on the exterior.
Unfortunately, Sullivan did not or could not align the two ranks of arches in plan so that they might reinforce each other in a better resolved composition (i.e., the Grand Stair could have and should have been symmetrically aligned with the central arch in the entry. This is readily discernable as one walks into the building through the central entry arch or when descending the stair.).
The tightness of the ground floor plan was such, however, that Sullivan had been forced to shift the Grand Stair a full bay to the left (facing the desk), placing it off-center with not only the centerline of the center entry arch, but also with the loggia overlooking Lake Michigan that one approached upon arriving at the last step on the second floor. I simply don’t understand why Sullivan did not align the three arches along the back wall of the lobby with the same three entry arches in the exterior? (As the Grand Stair arch spans two bays, as do all three of the exterior arches, actually the exterior arches have been fitted into the two bays and are slightly smaller but nonetheless, both ranks of arches could have had common centerlines/alignments.) I think the functions under the two smaller interior arches could have easily been redesigned within the larger diameter arches, and when done, the alignment of the two ranks of arches would have resulted in a more resolved architectural aligned space than what was actually built. To display my theory that there are more than just one solution to an architectural problem, I could also argue to keep the location of the Grand Stair and to rework the Michigan Avenue elevation into an asymmetrical solution that better reflects the reality of the building’s planning. In fact, a third solution would be to rotate the auditorium by 180°, moving the Theater entrance onto Michigan Avenue and the Hotel entrance to Congress. Entering the Theater lobby, one would walk up the stairs and into the Upper Foyer that would have that expansive view of the lakefront, a perfect spot for intermission, à la the Paris Opera House’s view back down the Avenue de l’Opéra. (Yes, indeed I would love to have a go at redesigning this building with a rotated theater, still employing all of Sullivan’s ornament…! But I suppose that Sullivan would have likewise.)
The customs of the period also required the provision for a separate entry for women to avoid unwanted contact with men, as well as to discourage the activities of prostitutes. This entry was located through a separate door located in the southernmost entrance arch that was reserved solely for women. From the Ladies Entrance, one could either proceed into the lobby or turn left into the Ladies Restaurant. Entrance to the ladies Restaurant was also gained through a corridor off the Grand Stair that also led to the Men’s Bar and the Barber Shop.
Hotel guests and visitors had the choice of either ascending the spatious Grand Stair or summoning a pair of elevators to the upper floors, where the Dining Room was located on the top floor, overlooking the lakefront.
The Dining Room on the Tenth Floor (linked bridges to the four-storied kitchen built over the stagehouse) allowed Sullivan to create a column-free space that was filled with copious amounts of daylight by inserting skylights between the arches used to span the entire width of the building. This created a space that was bright and cheerful for lunches, and during the summer, for evening suppers as well. Such ambience without any intervening columns would have been simply impossible had the room been located in any floor below.
At either end of the space, where the ceiling was flat before the first arch initiated the barrel vault. Sullivan created a more intimate dining space for smaller groups. In the North Alcove, he designed a number of private dining rooms, while in the South Alcove, the lower ceiling created a more intimate atmosphere.
The hotel opened in January 1890, a few weeks after the Opening Night of the Theater. However, there was still much work left to complete the eleventh-hour addition of the Banquet Hall (that Adler had to support over the roof of the theater with a bridge) whose construction extended throughout the summer and into the fall of 1890. But following the rush to complete the Theater in time for the Grand Opening, Sullivan was thoroughly exhausted, physically as well as creatively. Even though he had not yet completed the details for the Banquet Hall, he desperately needed a vacation. In his autobiography, Sullivan tells us that:
“Louis’s case was one of utter weariness. He went to central California. The climate irritated him. Then he moved to Southern California – the climate irritated him. This was during January and February, 1890. He had friends in San Diego and stayed there awhile…. Then on to New Orleans. That filthy town, as it then disillusioned him. Here he met Chicago friends.”
The friends were James and Helen Charnley (for whom he would design their house on Astor Street in 1891) who were among the contingent of wealthy Chicagoans who had just discovered that Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on Biloxi Bay, only 90 miles to the east of New Orleans, was the closest oceanside winter retreat to Chicago, via the Illinois Central (whose General Superintendent at the time just happened to be Louis’ brother Albert). The Charnleys invited Sullivan to join them in exploring the area, in the process of which all three fell in love with the beachfront and purchased adjacent lots. Sullivan designed a house for himself and one for his friends, engaged a contractor to build both houses, and departed for Chicago rejuvenated on March 12. (I will pick up with Sullivan’s detailing of the Banquet Hall in a later chapter that will be chronologically more accurate.
Nonetheless, before I move on to other buildings designed in 1888/9, I wanted to give John Root the last word on Sullivan’s design. Within a month of the opening of the Banquet Hall in October 1890, Root penned an article for the Inland Architect in which he “anonymously” (everyone knew his writing style) reviewed all of the city’s leading architects. Here is his contemporary description of Adler and Sullivan, having just completed their four-year plus Odyssey of the Auditorium:
“Among the highest in all the profession stands Mr. [Dankmar] Adler…Of late Mr. Adler has passed the artistic crayon to Mr. [Louis] Sullivan, but work designed by him in earlier days… shows a strength, simplicity and straightforwardness, together with a certain refinement, which reveal the true architect. No professional man has pursued a more consistent and dignified course than he, and no man is more respected by his confrères. The Auditorium, a really wonderful building, stands as a monument to his and Sullivan’s talent…
“One of the most individual personalities, and the author of some of the most characteristic work, is Mr. Sullivan. Cultivated in many directions, with a bold, alert, vigorous and imaginative mind bending its energies into many channels, self-confident and enthusiastic, ideally supplementing Adler his partner, Sullivan has accomplished much admirable work, and will receive much more… his are the designs for the Auditorium with its decorations, as well as many other buildings, all of which attest the boldness, freshness and ingenuity of his mind. So Exuberant is he that he sometimes seems to neglect the larger questions of mass, of light and shade, of sky-blotch in his care for delicacy, beauty and significance of detail, and even in this respect at times forgets that this detail should assume different expressions when executed in different materials.”
The master, though apparently impressed with the design of the Auditorium overall, still believed that the apprentice had a few more lessons to be learned…
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.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)