Site Seeing: Louis Sullivan's musical theater | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Site Seeing: Louis Sullivan's musical theater 

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I've always hated architecture tours. Memorized lectures full of tidbits about an architect's marital infidelities or unusually short stature have never helped the viewing of a great building. But the tour of Adler and Sullivan's landmark 1889 Auditorium Theatre is a wonderful exception. Sometimes a stage show prevents tours from being conducted, which is why they haven't been widely publicized, but tours are now being offered at least until March, when a new show moves into the theater.

Given by Auditorium archivist Bart Swindall, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the building is matched by a real love for its design, the tour is geared to the interests of those taking it. Swindall will talk about past performances--from classical music groups to the Doors--or demonstrate the hall's miraculous acoustics. He'll pause while you look at something, and what he shows you depends on the questions you ask.

Swindall points out things that don't yet look as they should. The theater was severely vandalized when it was temporarily converted into a bowling alley after the building's 1941 bankruptcy. The long process of restoring the space is not yet complete, but some of the original gold-leaf patterns are still visible in the ceiling, far more luminous than the gold paint used in the wall trim during an initial restoration. The side murals of spring and autumn scenes look yellow under incandescent lighting; daylight from the now-closed skylight would have revealed rich greens and blues.

Sullivan built drama into the act of entering his theater. The outer lobby is "like an overture," Swindall says. "You're seeing all these motifs that you see through the rest of the space." In the inner lobby, "everything is totally plain. You have the plainest light fixtures in the building. The floor is geometric and repeats itself." But as the concertgoer ascends toward the dress circle, the detailing becomes more elaborate and original. Upon reaching the first balcony lobby, Swindall notes that the light fixtures are all different: "The principle is organic growth, showing that there are infinite possibilities in Sullivan's system of ornament."

"The whole place is built on musical structures," he says. "Sullivan really loved music, and he used musical forms all the way through. You have themes and variations on those themes, and repetition, and imitation." A motif started in one material recurs in totally different materials. "And it wasn't only the theater," adds Swindall. "It was the entire building as well." While the theater has now been walled off from the rest of the building, originally people could move freely between sections. Swindall explains, "It's all intended as one huge organism with organic consistency all the way through."

An ornamental pattern in the carpet of the first balcony lobby can also be found, with some variation, in the nearby cast-iron balustrade. "Nothing repeats exactly," says Swindall. Patterns are sometimes adapted to the requirements of different materials; other times there are different considerations at work. The wrought-iron spiral motif on the balustrade leading up from the first balcony is much simpler, but the change to less elaborate ornamentation occurs because "we're now ascending to cheaper seats." This spiral design is also found in a stenciled pattern on the wall. There's even a rendition of musical inversion in the ceiling arches: light bulbs are arranged in alternating Vs and inverted Vs.

Swindall points out details designed by the young Frank Lloyd Wright, a Sullivan assistant at the time, and shows things Wright may have learned from Sullivan. In the dress circle lobby are two alcoves built around fireplaces that anticipate Wright's later home interiors. The spaces feel comforting, yet they are not enclosed; as in a Wright home, "things flow but you feel surrounded as well."

The alcove fireplace on the same side as the "spring" mural is reddish, while the fireplace on the side of the "autumn" mural is a paler, cooler color. But since the murals are not visible from the alcoves, no one would have noticed. "Sullivan can't stop," says Swindall. "He doesn't know when to quit. You go to smaller and smaller scales, and you still see things. There are janitor's closets up at the very top level that have tiled floors with individually designed borders that go around them, and the only person that ever saw them was the janitor."

Swindall regularly leads tours of the Auditorium Theatre by appointment on Mondays and Tuesdays, and sometimes Wednesdays and Thursdays. The cost is $4 ($3 for students and seniors). The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University is located at 50 E. Congress. To schedule a tour, call Bart Swindall at 431-2354.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa.

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