Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre

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auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
The Auditorium Theatre
Corner of Michigan Ave & Congress, Chicago, IL
As an ardent fan of architect Louis Sullivan, I’ve stalked the outside of the Auditorium Theatre many times over the years, but could never get in. These exterior shots are from July of 2002. And here’s some history.

auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
Along the Michigan Avenue side of the building, I love that Sullivan designed built-in benches for the benefit of public rest, especially since he was a reclusive crumudgeon.
auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
Along the Congress side is the official entry to the Auditorium Theatre. While everyone else has seen Abba or Roxy Music inside the place, I’ve always stood on the outside, trying to get in. And then came my chance on July 9th, 2005 when Robert Plant & The Strange Sensations appeared. I love me some Percy, but I was equally psyched to finally get inside.
auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
Because of numerous “No Camera” signs, I smuggled mine in, and couldn’t remove it from its hiding place for a bit. So, instead of snapping, I got to experience the sight and feel of going from street level all the way to the very toppermost of the auditorium, watching the decor ascend from grand to utilitarian. The main auditorium was gorgeously aglow with thousands of white lights, its ornament stately rather than flowery, a motiff that Sullivan preferred.

There was one glaring problem with the place, though.
The Death Pod
At some point during the 20th century, they added more seating by inserting a rectangular cube that hangs out and over the last row of balcony seats, proper. It looks like a secret club house that was nailed into the ceiling arches, and you reach it by crossing foot bridges. This is where our seats were.
As we crossed the bridge, I could feel it rearing upward, then through the dark portal and into a narrow, rickety wooden ledge that leans dangerously forward and down, over the main auditorium. As we tried to find our seats, I kept instinctively leaning back, holding onto loose wooden rails in case a sudden vibration sent me tumbling forward to my death, or major injury. It was too dark to find our exact seats, so we waited it out until the lights came on.

I took that opportunity to check the support systems of this add-on structure. While ornate columns supported everything in the building, nary a one supported the pod. I could find only wire suspension rods attached to the ceiling holding the pod in place, which would explain why it shook every time someone walked around in it. And I was spooked; I did NOT want to sit in that, that…Portal of Doom. But I decided to take some pictures, calm myself down, because I didn’t want to embarass myself in front of the others with crazy thoughts of crashing to our deaths while Robert Plant wailed “When the Levee Breaks.”
auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
Above is the tiny tile work on the stair landing leading to what was once the building’s office lobby, and below is a slice of the actual lobby itself. The colors and finishes are different from what’s shown in this old postcard, but it’s still impressive.
auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
While snapping the above picture, I got busted by a security guard who also moonlighted as a docent for tours of the building during the week. He told me that the interior of the building was copyrighted, so no pictures were allowed so as to keep people from stealing the designs. I about choked on the irony of this statement, telling the security guard that back in the day others made a mint blatantly stealing his designs, while Sullivan died destitute because of this. He’s long since dead; isn’t it a little late to be protecting his assests?
Either way, put the camera away, he said.
Then I told him about my fear of the Death Pod, and he said, “Yeah, it is kinda creepy up there.”
And now I had to join the Baton Death March to find our seats.

We sit in the seats and I’m breaking out in a slight sweat. A large woman stomps up the stairs and the entire structure lists forward. I’m having difficulty breathing.
I’m cooking up an excuse to remove myself from this horrific structure when my dear (and very smart) friend pipes up with: “I’m not sitting here. I can hear the screams of my ancestors.”
GLORY HALLELUJAH! We’re getting off the Titanic before it crashes into the iceberg!
We sat on wooden benches against the lobby wall one level down. Obviously not the best seats, but we could listen and watch without fear, enjoy the show safe in the knowledge that for us there would be a morning after.
auditorium theater louis sullivan chicago illinois photo by toby weiss
After the show, I dodged security guards to take the above shot of one of a row of windows ringing the ground floor lobby. The wood panel insert removes to reveal coatcheck, snack and other customer service functions. A guard saw my flash, so I darted away as he came toward me. They’re paid to protect Sullivan’s design legacy, but only after they sullied it with that shoddy, creepy Death Pod.

Back Home: Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building graces downtown St. Louis, a skyscraper pioneer that gets (and deserves) much architectural attention.
One block north – at Olive & 7th Street – is another of his St. Louis buildings, built about a year after the completion of the Wainwright. It’s so overlooked that many Sullivan scholars are unaware of its existence, even though they may walk past it daily. In a future post, I’ll cover the Sullivan Underdog Building.

1 thought on “Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre

  1. the death pod that you referr to is original to the 1889 design of the facility.

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