The Magnificent Auditorium (12-9-1889)

The President of the United States came to Chicago today to dedicate the largest building in the country.  The president was Benjamin Harrison.  The building was the Auditorium.

In 1886 Ferdinand Peck, businessman and arts patron, had organized a syndicate of like-minded rich men.  They wanted to give Chicago a grand opera hall.  Since operas usually operated in the red, the idea was to locate the hall in a larger commercial building.  That way, profits from the commercial building would balance out the money lost by the opera.

Early Auditorium postcard

Early Auditorium postcard

The firm of Adler & Sullivan was hired to construct the Auditorium.  Their plan was for a ten-story masonry building on Congress Street, stretching from Michigan to Wabash, with a seventeen-story tower at the west end.  At the center was the 4200-seat opera hall.  The rest of the building would include stores, offices, and a hotel.

Construction stretched over three years.  Many technical problems had to be solved.  In the summer of 1888, the Republican National Convention met in the half-finished building.  Benjamin Harrison was nominated for president.  He promised to come back and dedicate the completed Auditorium if he won the election.

Now the day of dedication had come.  Harrison had returned, as promised.  He was in a jolly mood as he greeted Ferdinand Peck and the local dignitaries.  “It’s the right sort of day, Mr. Peck, for the opening of Chicago’s—I should say America’s—greatest building!” he exclaimed.

The vice president was also on hand.  So were cabinet members, senators and representatives, the governors of several states, and other notables.  Crowds spilled through the streets, watching the mighty pass.  Those who didn’t have tickets for the grand dedication could take vicarious pleasure—with the opening of the Auditorium, Chicago was truly a world-class city.

Adelina Patti at the grand opening

Adelina Patti closing the dedication

Everything in the building had lived up to expectations.  The interior décor was beautiful.  The electric lighting—a recent innovation—was awesome. The acoustics in the huge opera hall were perfect.  When opera star Adelina Patti closed the program singing “Home Sweet Home,” most of the sophisticated audience broke into unexpected tears.

The Auditorium never became the financial bonanza the investors had hoped for.  Several times it came close to being demolished.  Today the building houses Roosevelt University.  The opera hall continues to be a popular venue for all kinds of music and theater.


5 Responses to “The Magnificent Auditorium (12-9-1889)”

  1. 1 Michael Jackowski December 11, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Thank you Patricia Schmit!
    I followed along with the renovation of the building in the 1960s. The building originally housed the Auditorium Hotel. My Busia (grandmother), Michalena Janischewski (Jackowski) worked in the laundry of the hotel for a time. Once, she was asked to iron a king’s pants. His butler brought them down and watched and waited while she did them.
    The auditorium is supposed to have perfect acoustics. Enrico Caruso performed there and praised the acoustics. Remarkable for a 4,000 seat auditorium that had all the calculations done by hand before computers were invented. The facility was used by the USO during WWII. it fell into disrepair and an effort to renovate it began when I was in grade school and was reported in the Tribune almost weekly.
    I was there for the opening night’s performance in 1967 and still have the program from that night.
    The New York City Ballet performed “A Midsummer Nights Dream”.
    It was quite an event!

  2. 3 James F. O'Neil December 12, 2015 at 9:34 am

    What a beautiful building. A great sight as I walked down Michigan Avenue/Boulevard. Thanks for the memory of my downtown-time.

  3. 4 Patricia schmit December 12, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Posted your blog on facebook and it garnered many comments. It raises one question, though – why was the Civic Opera House built? Your blog is certainly enjoyed by many. Kudos!!!

    • 5 J.R. Schmidt December 12, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks for the repost. I’m glad you enjoy my blog.
      The Civic Opera House building was constructed by Samuel Insull in 1929. The Civic Opera Company had been performing in the Auditorium during the 1920s, and moved into the new building on Wacker Drive because it had “more modern” facilities. I believe Mary Garden was the prime-mover behind that action.

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