old chicago skyscraper of the week–the Auditorium

September 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Auditorium's eighteen-story towerHappy birthday, Louis Sullivan!  Chicago’s patron saint of architecture, and the author of, perhaps, the most widely quoted modernist axiom of all time, turns 154 today.

The Auditorium was the greatest of his works with his longtime business partner, Dankmar Adler.  Conceived as a cultural center to replace a temporary Exposition in Grant Park, it combined the largest theater in the West at the time with commercial office space and a hotel. It was often said that Chicagoans never combined business and culture, but here is a good refutation of that myth.

The tower was the tallest structure in Chicago at the time.  It was designed to house water tanks that powered the theater’s hydraulic lifts, but Adler and Sullivan wisely included office space that offered stunning views of the lake and the city.

For all its advances, though, the Auditorium employed a decidedly conservative structure; the entire building was supported by bearing walls that wrapped around the central auditorium.  On the exterior, Sullivan settled on an ornamental scheme that clearly owed a lot to H. H. Richardson’s work of the 1880s.  While the theater used wrought iron trusses extensively, its commercial ‘wrapper’ was, along with the Monadnock and the Woman’s Temple, among the last of the great bearing wall buildings.

The differing weights of the tower and the surrounding building led to a quite noticeable foundation failure.  Adler was unable to spread the load of the tower out adequately over the soft clay of Chicago’s soil, and as a result the tower has sunk further than the surrounding structure.  Patrons entering the theater lobby, directly under the tower, walk down several steps from the street as a result.

Adler and Sullivan wisely took offices on one of the tower’s top floors, the one behind the colonnade.  Sullivan’s office was in the southeast corner, looking out over the lake, and it was in this office that he fired a precocious draftsman for persistent moonlighting.  In addition to hosting political conventions, full opera, and thousands of classical, jazz, and rock concerts, the Auditorium thus also saw the beginning of Frank Lloyd Wright’s solo career.

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