The Auditorium Theatre is one of Chicago’s great theatres and is located in one of the most innovative historic buildings in the country. Informative and interesting tours of the acoustically perfect theatre are offered on Mondays at 10:30am and noon and Thursdays at 10:30am. The box office opens ticket sales 30 minutes before each tour and charges US$12 per person. The entrance to the theatre is along Congress Parkway while the building sits along Michigan Avenue.
The tour began in the lobby of the theatre. The guide gave an overview of the Auditorium Building, which was built in 1889 and houses the theatre. The building was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan with a young Frank Lloyd Wright also working on the project. At the time it was built, the Auditorium Building was the largest building in the world and tallest in the United States. It was such an important building that the president at the time, Benjamin Harrison, attended the opening. It was also instrumental in Chicago securing the 1893 World’s Fair. Originally the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later the Lyric Opera, the main tenant is now the Joffrey Ballet.
The design elements were then discussed, such as the exterior load-bearing walls and the floating foundation sitting on a bed of wet clay. The architects expected the building to settle about six inches but in some places it was more than 29 inches. During the tour, everyone noticed some sections of the floor were much lower than others and even slanted at times. In the lobby before moving on, we were shown the six stained glass windows that adorn the entrance doors.
Main Seating Area
Next, it was off to the dimly-lit main seating area. We were told about the many uses of the Auditorium Theatre, such as a bowling alley for soldiers during World War II, the hydraulic stage that could be extended, and the grand hotel that was connected to it (now used as classrooms for Roosevelt University). Looking at the ceiling, we saw what used to be a skylight allowing natural light to enter. When there was a daytime performance, a screen was brought across to darken the theatre.
Lighting and Air Conditioning
Walking up a few flights of stairs, we took a seat and caught our breath while the guide explained the state-of-the-art lighting system. Many people at the time the theatre was built had no access to electricity and there were no electric companies, but the theatre ran on generators and was able to use soft light bulbs. The architects also implemented an air conditioning system well before air conditioning was invented. Large blocks of ice were chipped and placed in front of fans that blew cool air through vents in the ceiling. It was ingenious considering the time period and resources available.
We walked all the way up to the highest level of the Auditorium Theatre, a vertigo-inducing six stories above the main floor. It felt like we were looking straight down to the stage. The seats in the upper section are the original seats installed during construction of the theatre. The rest have been replaced with much more comfortable and larger seats.
There were also excellent views to the murals painted on either side. To the right was a mural representing the spring season and life and to the left was one representing autumn and death. Poetry by Louis Sullivan is featured on the bottom of each mural. The same circle of life theme is represented above the stage from right to left.
Back down on the main level, we saw a small section behind the main seating area with a fireplace. It was used to warm up in the winter. Mosaics and benches are on both sides of the fireplace.
Finally, we were shown the luxury boxes along the side of the main seating area. Louis Sullivan wanted all people to sit together and designed the best views to come from the center, but financiers refused to give him the funds to build the theatre unless he added luxury boxes. He added the boxes but he had the last laugh as they were not the best seats in the house, only the most comfortable. He believed that those who wanted to see the show would sit in the center and those who wanted to be seen would sit in the boxes.