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Though Chicago had a theatre tradition stretching back to 1838, the city’s contribution to serious theatre architecture began in 1889, when Louis Sullivan set out to invent a new vocabulary of decoration for the 4,237-seat Auditorium Theatre. A cross section of the building is shown below.
Throughout the construction process, Louis Sullivan often climbed over the scaffolding to supervise the workmen as they put the finishing touches on his wonderful hall. His handiwork was everywhere - in the gilded plaster of the powerful arches, in the patterns of the rugs, in the golden stencils of the stair landings, in the upholstery of the seats, in the stained glass windows of the lobby - all of which he designed.
Sometimes, as with the frieze above the boxes shown below, the inspiration came from Celtic sources; sometimes as with the arcade framing the boxes, it stems from his love of nature also celebrated in his poetry: “Now I am ‘neath the heavy, spreading bough.”
With its hotel, offices, restaurants, and opera house under one roof, the Sullivan Adler Auditorium building was a structure which functioned 24 hours a day and was incredibly efficient in its use of energy. The opera house itself was multipurpose. The seats could be covered by specially designed plans and the whole theatre could thus be transformed into a ballroom. At the height of its glory at the turn-of-the-century, the Auditorium was the setting of elaborate balls given in honor of visiting dignitaries such as Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The last days of these big parties were in the early 1940s.
All photos and text are attributed to Lowe, David. Chicago Interiors. Avenel; Random House, 1979. Page 32-37. Print.