For all of the expense in time and treasure spent on designing and constructing the Auditorium, it was truly unfortunate for all involved that the Haymarket Square bombing had occurred in May 1886. Had it been forestalled for only two years, with the entire timeline of the Auditorium being correspondingly pushed back by the same two years, it would have resulted in an entirely different building, one that might have better withstood the tests of time, for the Auditorium as built, was truly a white elephant in more ways than one. In August 1886 it had been designed at the end of the era of the masonry bearing wall structure, meaning that Adler had only the masonry bearing wall to support the building’s exterior and tower, whose massive weight was responsible for the building’s excessive differential settlement and corresponding warping of the floor levels throughout. There would be only one later significant building constructed in Chicago with the masonry bearing wall after the Auditorium, and that would be the sixteen-story Monadnock Block whose anachronistic construction was the result of the conscious rejection of the iron frame by its owner, Shepherd Brooks. The dawn of the iron skeleton frame had just begun (Root had just employed it in a design for the first time in the Rookery only months before the bombing). If Adler had faced the design of the Auditorium in December 1888-April 1889, he could have employed iron framing in the building’s exterior (as we will see in the following chapters). One thing is for certain: if Adler had used iron framing, the building’s functioning would not have been impaired by the severe floor slopes that the building has had to endure.
Second, if the Auditorium had been built two years later, Adler would have used iron-reinforced pad foundations, rather than the antiquated, stepped stone pyramidal foundations that he had used. While this would not have had any impact on the building’s exterior image, the much-reduced weight of the iron-reinforced pads, as well as the shallower depth required (with a corresponding increase in bearing strength) would have also diminished the amount of settlement the building experienced over time.
Third, within a year of the Hotel’s opening, American tastes in hotels had changed to expecting a private bathroom in their room. The communal or hallway bathroom that Adler and Sullivan had based the design of the Auditorium’s Hotel plan (it was planned on the European plan of one shared bathroom for every ten rooms) fell out of favor, the result of which was to force the hotel management to lower its rates to attract a lower class of guests to whom this did not matter as much. As such, the Auditorium’s Hotel never truly achieved the long-term prestige that Peck had envisioned for it.
In fact, from the viewpoint of both Peck and Adler & Sullivan, the Auditorium Building never really achieved much that Peck had hoped for. It never hosted a national presidential convention once it was completed. We have already seen that due to the Association’s anti-union stance that the Democrats would never hold a convention in the building. It was also simply politically naïve of Peck to expect that the Republicans would agree to always hold their convention in Chicago, let alone always in the same building, to the economic and political loss of other cities or owners of other buildings. And just as Peck, a private citizen, had engineered the construction of the Auditorium, the free market could not prevent another Chicagoan from building an even larger building that might attract the Republican convention if they ever chose to return to Chicago. This is exactly what occurred, following the 1893 World’s Fair, with the construction of the Chicago Coliseum at 63th and Stony Island that housed the 1896 Convention. So the Auditorium, planned at its inception to provide a permanent venue for the national conventions of both parties, was able to function in this capacity only once for the Republicans in 1888.
The need to be large enough to house a national convention had forced Adler to maximize the Auditorium’s seating capacity that over time also proved to be counterproductive to both the Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that moved into the facility in October 1891. Quite simply, there were always too many seats available that resulted in a constant disappointing sale of subscription series tickets, the lifeblood of all musical organizations, because everyone knew that there would almost certainly be the right number of tickets available for purchase on the night of a given performance. The eventual sloping of the floor levels at the perimeter walls would so warp the building’s floor elevations that the reducing partitions for the two galleries could no longer function and were, thereby, left open, only exacerbating the seat/ticket issue.
The size of the house to hold such an audience was also detrimental to the orchestral acoustics that only reinforced the CSO’s demand for an improved facility of its own (provided in the design of Orchestra Hall two blocks north on Michigan Avenue by Burnham in 1904). While Adler had designed the Auditorium’s acoustics for optimum vocal performance, orchestra musicians needed to hear each other constantly during a piece, something the vast auditorium with its open rear did not really provide. CSO Director Theodore Thomas was once overheard complaining, “Nothing comes back!”
Lastly, the Auditorium’s artistic reputation, of representing one of Sullivan’s best examples of his now maturing ornamental style that was best described by Edward Garczynski, “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,” would be short-lived and truly under appreciated for many years. Within three months of the opening of the Hotel’s Banquet Hall, John Root would die, and without the Chicago School’s chief spokesman, the entire search for an American, let alone a Chicago style of architecture, would be pushed to the background of history as the American NeoClassical Style, as best represented by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, quickly gained stylistic preference among the city’s clients and architects.
Tragically, the harsh reality of the Auditorium was that Adler & Sullivan had spent over four years of their lives, sometimes to the detriment of the firm’s short-term profitability as well as to their individual long-term physical well-being, designing and constructing a truly magnificently detailed dinosaur.
I’d like to recognize Bart Swindall (1951-2019), the longtime Archivist and Tour Director for the Auditorium Theatre Council. He was a good friend and kindred spirit. He gave many tours of the Auditorium for my students during my teaching career. He also gave me a fond memory by allowing me to stand on stage alone while my students sat in the third balcony. I dropped a nickel to the stage floor, and yes, its sound rang through the space…
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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