The Auditorium Building architecture is widely considered one of Chicago’s most important feats in engineering and design. The exterior design of the Auditorium Building was redesigned several times by Adler and Sullivan. They made significant changes to the structure even after the meticulously-calculated foundations had been laid. The Auditorium Building is a massive structure that features a Romanesque façade and an organic ornamental design throughout its interior.
The Auditorium Building, Chicago’s tallest, most massive and heavy building, was built in 1889. The bottom three floors were constructed of large blocks of rough-cut dark granite stone, while the seven floors above and the tower are made from lighter limestone. At the base of the impressive 17-story tower, the Auditorium Theatre’s main entry, three large stone arches that face south on Ida B Wells Drive, is the Auditorium Theatre’s impressive main entrance. It was once the tallest building in Chicago. The entire building’s facade is covered in shadowed windows and arches. The Auditorium’s exterior is symbolic of the Chicago School. It has been described as a large, strong, and bold fortress. After the foundations of the building were laid, the materials used to make the building’s exterior were altered from terra-cotta to granite or limestone.
Richardsonian Romanesque inspired the Auditorium Building. This style of architecture is named after Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). It is a revival style that draws inspiration from Spanish Romanesque precedents and French Romanesque precedents from the 11 th century. Richardson’s style features dramatic semicircular arches and massive stone walls. He also uses rough-cut stone walls to create interior spaces that are incredibly dynamic. Richardson’s style is characterized by continuity and unity.
Unstable Soil & Weight
Chicago is known for its unstable and wet soil. The Auditorium’s soil is composed of soft blue clay that extends to over 100 feet. This made it impossible for the 1800s foundations to be used. Due to the heavy and unstable soil, it wasn’t easy to build tall structures due to the significant settlement and the weight of tall and large structures.
Dankmar Adler created the Auditorium’s unique foundation from a series of isolated piers. Each pier was designed to support a specific portion of the Auditorium’s 110,000-ton weight. Concrete was used to create the foundation. It consisted of a grillage of railroad beams and timbers. Adler laid his rubble, stone pyramid footings, and isolated piers on this floating foundation. As Adler expected, as the weight of each building was added to it, the piers began to sink into the soil.
Adler also had to think about the 17-story tower, which is seven stories taller than all the other structures, that would be built over the Auditorium’s south section. The tower would be built after the rest of the building. Therefore, its piers will settle at different rates. Uneven settlement can lead to structural damage. Adler used concrete and iron blocks to ensure uniform settlement in the basement below the tower. As the tower was completed, the extra weight was removed.
The architects anticipated some settlement, as was the case in the 1880s. Adler designed the building with flexible wrought-iron beams and strong cast-iron columns to allow for some flexibility and give.
The design of the Auditorium Theatre combines many elements and ideas brilliantly. Sullivan’s “form follows function” philosophy and love of nature are evident throughout the Auditorium. Peck’s democratic principles were also considered as they designed the theatre.
The Auditorium Theatre’s versatility is one of its greatest strengths. Multiple elements were used to design the theatre, which allowed it to be modified in size, shape, or purpose.
Reduce the Curtain
The solid reducing curtain was made of iron and plaster. It can be raised or lower to adjust the size of the proscenium opening. The reducing curtain was removed to allow performers to use the entire 75ft stage width for large operas and other large events. The reducing curtain was lower (as shown here) for smaller productions and events such as lectures and concerts to reduce the stage opening to 47ft wide by 35ft high. The reducing curtain face panels have intricate organic designs and include the names of ten well-known composers.
Temporary floors could be used to cover a portion of the parquet (or orchestra) level, which is the area closest to the stage. This would transform the theatre into the largest ballroom in the city. Cast iron footings were still visible across the floor. They held vertical poles that supported temporary floors above the seats. This floor system allowed the theatre to be used as a ballroom, a banquet hall, or a space to host indoor softball games and tennis matches.
Movable Ceiling Panels
The large hinged ceiling panels made it possible to hide the top two galleries of the Auditorium Theatre’s 1889 opening. They were dropped from the ceiling, and the panels closed off the galleries’ fronts. Curtains were also dropped between the pillars of the first balcony to close off the seating back. For smaller events, the theatre’s seating capacity was increased from 4,200 to 2,500.
Increase the Seating Capacity
The theatre’s seating capacity can be increased for conventions and mass meetings, such as the Republican National Convention of1888. The Dress Circle’s lobby was given additional seating, and the stage and corridors behind the boxes were also upgraded with riser seating. This increased the theatre’s total seating capacity to over 6,000.
Twenty-six hydraulic lifts were installed beneath the Auditorium Theatre’s massive stage in 1889. Modern technology allowed for the lifting and lowering of stage sections individually or in combination. Adler modified the lifts to make them more efficient and precise than older systems. Lifts were used to conceal areas of the stage from the audience (for changing scenery), create levels and simulate moving water.
All hydraulic pistons have been removed today, and three electronic lifts work in the orchestra pit. The original orchestra lift consisted of platforms.
A rolling backdrop canvas, a thunder-making device, and a 95-foot-tall rigging loft were additional technologies used for on-stage transformations. Iron pulleys and rope cable counterweights made up the rigging loft. The loft allowed drops to rise high above the stage and out of sightlines for the audience. The rolling backdrop canvas was a large, half-circle canvas roll measuring 300 x 70 feet in length and 70 ft high. It stretched along the back and sides of the stage showing panoramic views of the sky. A series of tracks was used to place an iron cannonball on the tracks. This created thunder and made it possible for the machine to continue rolling down the maze.
Expansion & Compression
Patrons enter the theatre’s front orchestra-level theatre through the “vomitoria”, small, dark, and low. This allows maximum contrast when they step into the large, bright, open theatre house. Frank Lloyd Wright, a young architect and draftsman, used this technique often to compress and expand.
Air Ventilation System
The Auditorium Theatre was the first theatre to be heated and air-conditioned. It can now function all year round. The air intake was located to the south of the stage. The basement was used to heat or cool the air before it was pumped into the theatre via ornamental plaster domes throughout the theatre. Ferdinand Peck’s ideal democracy was supported by vents domed in the upper galleries and on the main floor. Everyone enjoyed a heated or conditioned theatre experience.
Chicago’s colder months saw the air being drawn into the theatre, washed with water and humidified before being forced onto hot radiators.
Through huge doors on the sidewalk, 15 tons of ice were daily delivered to the theatre in summer. The ice was then crushed and salted before being placed in large storage vats. The theatre’s south side intake received air. It was then sprayed clean. After cooling, the air was forced across the crushed ice vats. Audiences of the Auditorium Theatre were able to cool down in the Auditorium thanks to the modern air cooling system.
At its construction, the Auditorium was one of the first buildings to have electricity. The Auditorium Building housed eleven large generators to provide the building’s power. The Auditorium houses 3,500 clear carbon filament bulbs made of electric clear glass carbon. They span the ceiling and balcony and surround the audience. Sullivan’s original design was especially impressive in 1889 when electric lighting designs were modelled on candle chandeliers.
Many theatre fires were caused by gaslighting. The Chicago Citizens’ Association in 1883 recommended that all theatres move to electricity. Although most Chicago theatres had switched to electric lighting by 1888, the Auditorium’s system was still advanced and innovative.
Fun Fact Roosevelt University’s Head Electrician changes the light bulbs in the theatre’s arches. He climbs into the arches where there are small walkways. The light bulbs can be pulled up into the archways through small openings.
Auditorium Theatre is renowned for its excellent acoustics. Each interior element was carefully considered to ensure outstanding acoustics. Audiences can hear clearly from the top gallery from the highest row, even in the upper rows.
The Auditorium Theatre’s acoustics are influenced by the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah; Adler’s father’s synagogues (a rabbi/cantor) and ancient Roman and Greek theatres. Russell’s theory posited that sound travels in congruence with sightlines. The optimal auditorium design had an upward slope running from front to rear, effectively eliminating any back wall that could be a problem. The ideal configuration was called an “isacoustic curvature”.
The Position of the Seats
Adler placed a lot of seats in two sections of the main floor. These were the parquet area near the stage (now the Gold Circle) and the parquet circle (now the Dress Circle). Adler raised the seats approximately 15 inches for each row. Ascending rows allow observers to see and hear over the heads of those directly in front.
The Shape of Space
The shape of its theatre space greatly enhances the Auditorium Theatre’s acoustics. The theatre is shaped like an instrument of speech or trumpet to aid sound projection from the stage. Ceiling arches rise to the ceiling, extending outward from the stage. They contain sound and reflect it into the audience.
Materials for Ceilings and Walls
The theatre’s interior materials were carefully selected to ensure aesthetic and acoustic perfection. Because it was moderately resonant and reflective, Adler and Sullivan selected thick plaster to cover the Auditorium’s interior. This allows for clear amplification and minimal reverberation. To prevent reflections from the plaster surfaces causing echos, decorative moulding was also used to break up the plaster.
Chicago was still reeling from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 when the Auditorium Theatre opened. Peck, Adler and Sullivan wanted the theatre to be as fireproof and safe as possible. The Auditorium was designed to be fireproof. It uses plaster material in place of wood for its walls and ceilings, has stone walls on the exterior, and has a lot of narrow aisles. Vomitoria (or “voms”) are tunnel-like passageways that lead out of the theatre. This allows for a quick and easy exit. The original Auditorium Building brochure stated that the entire structure was “absolutely fireproof”.