auditorium theater stage

Featuring Chicago: The Auditorium Theater


Today is the 125th anniversary of the Auditorium Theater’s opening.  (Thanks, Blair Kamin, for the headsup).   This venerable Chicago deserves a shout out, both for its historic importance and its ongoing beauty.

The Auditorium Building,  just outside the Loop’s south east corner, has stood tall on Michigan Avenue and provided a glorious venue the performing arts since it was completed on this day in 1889.  Architects, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, teamed up to create a record breaking building which set the stage both for their own careers and Chicago’s urban style.  Here’s why we love it.


The carbon filament incandescent lightbulb was patented by Thomas Edison in 1879 (note he didn’t invent electricity – just the bulb that worked).  A mere 10 years later, Sullivan chose to make the Auditorium building a pean to the product – using 3,500 of them to make the theater space glow like the sunshine.  The bulbs are framed by elaborate plasterwork and incorporated both individually and en-mass to a generous curving design but none of them are cloaked by any kind of shade or fixture.  Since they were the height of modern progress at the time, letting them show was a point of pride.



The Auditorium theater building enclosed a lot of amazing feats and firsts.  In addition to its pioneering use of incandescent light, it was the largest structure in the US ad the tallest building in Chicago when it was constructed.  It used hydraulic lifts to maneuver heavy stage elements.  It was also the city’s most expensive building to date, with a sticker price of $3 million.

It was an engineering marvel.  From the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places: To ensure that the weight of its tower didn’t cause that part of the building to settle more than the lower building around it, the foundation was intensely reinforced and then the area of the future tower was artificially weighted won  with “pig iron and brick in vast quantities” stacked in the basement and lower floors to match the final design weight.  As the tower was constructed above, equal amounts of load were removed from those piles until the completed building was set with its actual load.


The National Register nomination also notes it as the first air conditioned structure, water tight enclosure of the basement level back stage equipment areas 7 floors below the level of Lake Michgan and “near perfect” visiblity and acoustics from the highest balcony.  Although that last balcony is worthy of the title of nosebleed-setting and could induce vertigo in the cautious, it does indeed give a perfectly unobscured view of the stage and stunning acoustical clarity.

Kamin cites historian Josepth Siry in pointing out that the theater was unique in its egalitarian layout – contemporary opera houses focused on maximizing boxes for the rich – the Auditorium gives the best seats to the main floor and relegates boxes (really just rows of side facing seats) to the sides.

building section


During its history the theater saw the debut performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (based in the theater from 1891 to 1904) and was home to the Chicago Civic Opera Company from 1910 to 1929.  The loss of the Opera, combined with the onset of the depression hit the theater hard and despite the building being purchased by Roosevelt University in the 40’s, the theater languished in disrepair until it was restored and reopened in 1967.

In the 70’s it rapidly racked up recognition with a place on the Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmark status and Chicago Landmark status.  Today it hosts touring Broadway productions, the Joffrey Ballet and a wide range of dance and music performances, as well as lectures and (next year) the 2015 NFL Draft.   Find the official timeline here.

If you’ve managed to live in Chicago for any length of time without appreciating the glowing glory of the Auditorium, grab yourself tickets to the next performance of your preference or one of their morning tours on Monday and Thursday.  This Chicago building really shouldn’t be missed.

Like this post? Check out our other Featuring Chicago profile, Marina City, and our Chicago Building Types series including studies of Chicago BungalowsCourtyard Apartment Buildings, Greystone Flats,Four-Plus-One Apartments and, naturally, Skyscrapers.