PLEASE NOTE: The History Club meeting scheduled for September 10 has been rescheduled for September 17.
I have had several emails wanting more information about the Auditorium building and the seating capacity of the theater. The story of the Auditorium is a great story and someone should write a book if it hasn’t already been done.
There are several different numbers about the seating capacity of the Auditorium Theater. When the first events were held there was no permanent seating. Folding chairs were used along with overflow spaces. This may be where the 9,000 number originated. (It could also be that the reporter was wrong with his estimate.) Later there is a statement in the Tribune saying that the theater was built to seat 4,237 "and was the largest permanent theater every constructed in the world up to that time.”
During the first political convention, folding chairs were used and the newspaper reports that there were 5,000 spectators, 2,000 reporters plus the delegates. In 1889, the Tribune reports that 5,000 opera-chairs were furnished by “the old and reliable house of A. H Andrews and Co.” Today, I understand the Theater seats 2,327.
The Tribune in 1887, lists the original stockholders and more than 100 names are listed. The officers of the corporations were: Charles L. Hutchinson, John R. Walsh, N. F. Fairbanks, A. L. Coe, Charles Counselman, A. A. Sprague, M. A. Ryerson, W. E. Hale, William Penn Nixon, Henry Field, and Ferdinand W. Peck. Mr. Peck served as President.
It is the only major Adler and Sullivan Building remaining in Chicago and was marked by grand stairways, magnificent arches, stained glass, 22-karat gold leaf and an acoustically perfect auditorium. Upwards of 60,000 sq. ft. of plate glass was used in the building. On top of the Auditorium is an 8-story office building. Not sure how the office building is used today but, it once recorded the official temperatures for the city of Chicago and was the tallest structure in town.
The opening performance on December 11, 1889, was a “Grand Italian Opera production of Romeo and Juliet.”
The building was among the first to be totally wired for electricity and one of the last great buildings to rest on sand and mud without a foundation of caissons. The area of the site is about two acres.
A 10-foot duct brought in air from the roof and was cooled by sprays of water in the summer and the air was heated in the winter. The vast stage with its elevators and backdrops was designed in Vienna.
The Chicago Opera Company used the theater for 40 years but the building was never a financial success and by the Great Depression the Chicago Auditorium Association was bankrupt. Bids to demolish the building were taken in 1930 and 1931, but the cost of demolition was greater than the value of the land. The question of who had authority to demolish the building, the land owners or the Association, became a legal issue and made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
During World War II, the Auditorium served as the USO and the great stage was turned into a bowling alley.
Roosevelt University bought the building in 1946 for $400,000 and a promise to pay back taxes of $1,300,000. The Founders had originally chosen the name of Jefferson University but when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the name was changed. The University began restoring the Theater in 1960 and it was reopened in 1967.
In Chicago, who owns the land is always interesting. Part of the land, the northeast corner, was owned by the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company. In 1903, that lease was assigned to the Fine Arts Association. The term of the lease was for 99 years. In 1889, Boston capitalists purchased the southwest corner of the property for $232,200. It was leased back to the Auditorium Association for 99 years. Henry J. Willing once owned a major portion of the land. Over time, the University has purchased back most of the land according to an article in the Chicago Tribune dated, February 27, 1947. One lease does not expire until 2085. It was written for 200 years.
We are considering a Fall history tour to visit the Auditorium Theater. The History Club meeting on September 17 will feature the Director of the Auditorium Theater. Once we have more information, we will send everyone an email with the details.
President Scottish American History Club