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Resilient urban icon honored on 125th birthday

Resilient urban icon honored on 125th birthday



Earlier this month, Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre celebrated its 125th anniversary with a star-studded stage show and black-tie dinner at the nearby Palmer House Hilton. First Lady Michelle Obama served as Honorary Chair for the event and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave a brief history of the landmark structure before sharing the spotlight with performances by Tony Award-winning songstress Patti LuPone, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and more.

While we here at BuiltWorlds devote much of our time to staying abreast of the latest tech trends affecting the built environment, occasionally it’s nice to step back and remind ourselves of where we’ve come from, and what our industry can still learn from history today.

History + Innovation

Built as the city around it was still rising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, the Auditorium Theatre was designed by the famed architectural duo of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Their goal was to make high culture more accessible to Chicago’s working class, so they created the nation's first multi-use building. At the time it was built in 1889, it was both the tallest building in Chicago and the largest building in the United States. It pushed the limits of modern architecture and technology, too, incorporating electric lighting and air conditioning. In fact, the innovations were plentiful enough that some called the Auditorium Theatre "the 8th wonder of the world".

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Not only was the structure and its features groundbreaking, but the business model behind it also offered a new concept. The idea was that the profit from the building's hotel and offices would offset the cost of the performances that came to the theater. That would keep ticket prices low enough to be accessible to people who may not otherwise have been able to afford the cultural experience.

While that logic was solid, the Great Depression later intervened and the hotel and offices soon became unprofitable. As a result, the city took ownership of the theater before World War II and, after that conflict started, then converted it into a servicemen’s center, complete with a bowling alley. Fast forward to 1967, when enough funds were finally raised to reopen the theater.

Today, the Auditorium Theatre is part of Roosevelt University and is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Renowned for its gorgeous architecture, gold-gilded ceiling arches and acoustical excellence, the structure incorporates the same technology today that had pushed the boundaries of its time over a century ago.

Isn’t this still the role of technology, and the charge of architects and builders today? To push the limits of what is possible now, into the future, with qualities that will stand the test of time? To create works that will be as relevant and useful to the people of tomorrow as they are now? 

For ALL OF the people

“Our Auditorium Theatre was built for the people of all socio-economic backgrounds,” noted Christina Bourné, the theater's director of creative engagement. Today that intention remains, as evidenced by the diverse and prominent dance and performance companies that use the facility. The group includes the Joffrey Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Theater, Too Hot to Handel, and Tango Buenos Aires. It is also home to Hands Together, Heart to Art, a program that brings together children who have experienced the death of a parent, and Willow Chicago, one of the city’s most diverse church communities. Next spring, the Auditorium Theatre will even host the 2015 NFL Draft.

In short, the Auditorium Theatre has done what most longstanding organizations have had to do, to survive and to thrive. It has continually pivoted with the times, and stylishly adapted itself to the demands of succeeding generations. 

                                                                 Photos by Christina Klinepeter.

                                                                 Photos by Christina Klinepeter.



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