Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Touring Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building at COS MiniCon

In the period of a few years between 1887 and 1889, a 30-year-old Louis Sullivan, aided by his 18-year-old assistant Frank Lloyd Wright, conceived and built the Auditorium Building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway in Chicago.  The building is a tour-de-force of Sullivan's genius, and is generally considered to be among his greatest works.  I'm thrilled to be presenting a special tour of the building as part of the Chicago Objectivist Society's MiniCon, this coming Labor Day weekend.

The Theatre was (and is) renowned for its acoustical perfection, among other technical innovations that amazed theater goers when the building was new. It was the first building to employ a system of central air conditioning, the first to be lit exclusively with incandescent light bulbs, and and it is often cited as the first mixed use building, as it contained not only the Auditorium Theatre, but also a hotel and rental office space.

When most people (of those who are aware of it) think of the Auditorium Building, I would venture to guess that their minds typically go straight to the Theatre, and rightly so.  The Theatre itself is the crown jewel of the building, after all. But, there is a lot more to the Auditorium Building than just the famous Auditorium Theatre.

There are a number of other beautiful spaces, originally built as part of the hotel, that display Sullivan's incredible design genius every bit as much as the Theatre. Today these spaces have, for the most part, survived as part of Roosevelt University, which has occupied the building since the 1940s. Some of these spaces are better preserved than others, and some have been lovingly and meticulously restored to their former glory. The former hotel dining room is now the library of the university; the former ladies lounge on the second floor of the hotel is now called the Sullivan Room. The Sullivan Room and Ganz Hall are two of the spaces that have been meticulously restored. Ganz Hall, which is located on the 7th floor, was once a private banquet hall, and is now used as a recital hall for Roosevelt's music program.

The building is a bit of a puzzle, in terms of layout. To look at it from the outside, it's hard to see how all these different functions fit neatly into the simple gray granite box that presents itself to the street. Lets examine how the spaces relate to one another.

The three arches facing us, at the street level in the picture above, were the main entrance to the hotel, and are now the main entrance to Roosevelt U. The second floor, just above the lobby, is a generous lounge space. The Lobby and Lounge both display much of their original detailing. In the left-hand corner of the building, at the second floor, is the Sullivan Room.

I've taken the liberty to add some color to this historic section through the building, in order to help explain the layout of the interior:

Click to embiggen!

From left to right, you can see that the hotel lobby and lounge occupy the frontage along Michigan Avenue. Above that are 7 floors of hotel rooms (now classrooms and offices) with the Grand Dining Hall/Library high above on the 10th floor.  The hotel room layout basically wraps around the Congress Parkway side (at the back, behind the visible area of this drawing). Next, moving to the right, comes the backstage area, and then the Auditorium Theatre itself. Perched above the auditorium is the special little jewel that is Ganz Hall. It is suspended over the theatre space on a special system of trusses. Next we reach the tower, in the top of which was Adler & Sullivan's office, and at the base of which is the entrance & ticketing area to the Theatre. The block to the right of the lobbies and stairs was originally the rental office space, which wrapped around in an 'L' shape, up to and including the tower.

Here are a few then + now pictures of some of the spaces. First, the Hotel Lobby:

The Grand Dining Hall:

Ganz Hall (in which every carved wooden column capital is unique):

One space that is still a mystery to me is the O'Malley Theatre.

I shaded it in blue when I colored in the section drawing, simply for contrast, but I have no idea what the space is actually like inside. It does appear to be part of the original plans, from what I can tell, and I am quite curious to learn more about it.

The other mystery I'm trying to resolve is this historic postcard, identified only as "Restaurant"

Based on the configuration of windows shown in the view, I can't make it make sense, based on what I know about the Grand Dining Hall and Ganz Hall. Interestingly, the chairs do match the chairs in the other black and white historic photos of the dining room, above.

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Auditorium Building next week in advance of the tour, and will try to find out more about O'Malley, as well as the Mystery Dining Room, while I'm there.

Usually, Ganz Hall and the Sullivan Room are reserved for special Roosevelt University events. We have been granted special access to these spaces for our tour, through the generosity of the university. I couldn't be happier about the cooperation and enthusiasm they have displayed in helping me plan this event. It is clear that they treasure their home and cherish its beauty and significance, and are eager to share it with others who also appreciate it.

For further information about the tour, and to RSVP if you are already registered for the conference, please see our facebook event page at this link. Hope to see you there!


  1. My best guess on the postcard is: That is the part of the main floor, Congress Parkway side, that was removed to widen the street. It is now a walkway.

  2. There was an open-air restaurant on the Michigan Avenue side of the building, above the hotel lobby. Could the postcard be a shot of the interior of that restaurant? I wouldn't guess it's the Congress Parkway side, as the massive columns are missing.

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