Image by Angie McMonigal
Even for life-long Chicagoans, this building may be a little obscure. But Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium Building is a masterpiece – its inside, a hidden gem. It was one of the late 19th century’s most famous buildings – and remains one of the most important in Louis Sullivan’s oeuvre.
Located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway across from Grant Park, it has been owned and occupied by Roosevelt University since the late 1940s. You can’t miss the location on the skyline: rising up strikingly beside the Auditorium building is the university’s new blue glass jagged tower, the Wabash Building (dorm rooms with a VIEW).
There is so much to explore about this building, but today we’ll focus in on the overall story along with photographing the exterior and the old hotel lobby. The glistening 4,000 seat theater will simply have to wait for another time!
The Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan was given this breakthrough commission in the late 1880s. They were chosen mostly because of Dankmar Adler’s proven genius as an acoustical engineer. But through his work on the Auditorium Building, Louis Sullivan would be discovered as his just-as-genius design partner. They received world attention as acknowledged innovators.
The structure was groundbreaking in many ways. Here’s a historic shot of the building when new. Notice the house across the street. It was one of last great masonry load-bearing buildings. At the time it was the largest, tallest, heaviest, most expensive, and most technologically advanced building in the world, taking three years to complete. It also brought fame to Chicago, sufficiently impressing the U.S. Congress that Chicago should indeed host the 1893 World’s Fair. When it was dedicated on December 9, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison attended while 20,000 lined the streets.
It was an unusual commission for a building. Adler & Sullivan were asked to create a civic monument and a three-part, multi-use building. It was to contain a theater for an opera company (also symphony and ballet) intended to make Chicago a more cultured city. It was to house a 400-room hotel along with a 136-office tower –to pay for the theater. Adler & Sullivan brilliantly surrounded the massive jewel of a theater with the hotel and office tower.
The 18-story tower was the highest point in the city and housed offices and the theater’s hydraulics. 1893 fair goers loved the amazing views. Adler & Sullivan’s offices were up in the tower, and it is here that a young intern who helped Sullivan with the interior design also was given an office: Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Auditorium Building had some success, but not enough. The symphony moved on when it built its own hall up the street, the opera moved away when it built a new house on the river, and the hotel’s European-style bathroom arrangement (one per several rooms) was outdated and cost the hotel business. The building faced demolition in the 1930s, but survived because that proved cost prohibitive. During World War II, the building was used for the USO (the theater stage converted to a bowling alley!). But in 1946, Roosevelt University bought it and initiated a long and impressive journey of adaptive reuse.
Let’s take a look at the exterior architecture. Louis Sullivan rejected classical design as too derivative and instead created a new, American take on architecture based on the work of Henry Hobson Richardson. He was inspired by Richardson’s massive stone and rounded arches, but he makes them his own here. Simple and harmonious, massive in scale, completely unadorned, the arches all over the building repeat and seem to ripple and reverberate. Sullivan is, in theory, bringing nature to the city in this huge mountain of rugged stone.
As much as I love Sullivan’s work, the exterior of the auditorium used to be a little hard to love. Its severity put me off. But while it isn’t a ‘pretty’ building, it is indeed powerful and commanding (and, I would argue, if it hasn’t already, it will grow on you…). And I believe mostly through viewing well-done photographs of its exterior, like those here, was I fully able to appreciate it.
It’s admittedly a bit tricky to photograph. Because of all the urban density around it, it’s tough to get a good shot of the entire structure. Some potentially grand views are obstructed by other buildings. You might choose to move away several blocks – either south on Wabash or over in Grant Park – to capture most of the building. And even though it is dwarfed today by modern skyscrapers, the Auditorium Building holds its own and looks quite handsome in its context, especially against the blue Wabash Building and the red CNA tower.
Focus in on – isolate – the arches, especially at ground level. As you move to different angles and get in closer, you will see the rhythm of the arches come alive. Shooting the south facade close and facing east can be especially dynamic.
I believe tight shots of the exterior may be the most satisfying. Morning sun makes the rusticated granite look bold and dramatic. Get close. Aim up!
And, as you would expect, black and white is excellently suited for your exterior photographs.
Notice how the sidewalk goes right through the first level? It was not always that way. That space used to be interior – an ornate bar occupied the south east corner. When Congress Parkway was widened in the 1950s, it necessitated gouging out buildings for sidewalks (!).
The three-part building was designed with three separate entrances. Let’s go in the Michigan Avenue doors, today’s Roosevelt University main lobby (430 S. Michigan).
One of the brilliant tactics Sullivan employed is to make the exterior seem stark and simple, which only serves to conceal the complex design program within. While the exterior was groundbreaking, even more remarkable is the interior.
Even though the building has seen many changes for the University’s use and some of the original color and pattern is missing, there is enough remaining to feast your eyes – and your lens – upon. Sullivan’s signature lavish, complex designs are obvious in this space.
Notice the lack of classical details: no Greek or Roman anything here. There are columns, but they are not classical. Notice the rich materials and color (you simply must shoot in color here!): carved wood, plasterwork, mosaic floors, stained glass windows and metal work. Notice how Sullivan uses nature in his ornamentation: he abstracts organic forms and adds geometry. Then he makes the ornament look like it is growing right out of the walls. As he told Frank Lloyd Wright: “Make it live!” Pure, inimitable Sullivan.
But Frank Lloyd Wright shows his hand in this space, too: check out the grills above the entrance doors and the ceiling stained glass above the staircase: Wright’s (early, but) unmistakable geometry.
You will usually have decent natural light here. I would suggest concentrating your efforts around the still elegant staircase (if you saw the movie The Untouchables, you saw a scene filmed right here!). My favorite spot to talk to tour groups is the corner to the left of the staircase (as you face it); from there you have a wonderful view of the stained glass, the lobby, and the staircase itself. Try going up to the second floor and shooting from various vantage points along the way.
The second floor was once hotel lounge space. It is open to the public and an interesting place to shoot – especially out toward Michigan Avenue and the park. The easternmost area with windows facing Grant Park used to be an open air restaurant. Check out this 1910 photo
The Auditorium Building was ground-breaking and influential, and an important example of Adler & Sullivan’s work. The beauty of its theater is widely known (future post!), but the rugged beauty of its exterior and the much less known hotel lobby interior present great opportunities for photography. Chris and Angie’s photos are proof. I hope you enjoy the challenges and the rewards of shooting the Auditorium Building!
If you want to do a more formal shoot with a tripod, etc., simply ask permission ahead of time. I was told they are very accepting of photographers, but appreciate the courtesy of arranging a shoot in advance.
Building hours are Mon-Thurs, 7:30am-10:30pm, Fri 7:30am-6:00pm, Sat 8:00am-5:00pm, Sun 11:00am-5:00pm. For more details, see the Roosevelt University site.