October 05: Architects Who Built Their Own Graves

2016/10/05 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1887 Pres. Grover Cleveland presided over the cornerstone ceremony for the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

The Theatre was the brainchild of Chicago real estate tycoon Ferdinand Peck, who got a bunch of other muckety-mucks (Marshall Field and George Pullman among them) to invest in a theatre that would rival the ones in New York.  In addition to providing entertainment for their own elite circles, Peck had the idea that the theatre might also provide quality entertainment to the working classes and help ameliorate the kind of strife that had led to the Haymarket riot of the previous year.  (He probably kept that part of the plan secret from Pullman).

The centerpiece of the giant stone building is the auditorium, of course.  It is the masterpiece of the architectural firm Adler and Sullivan, both highly regarded for the acoustical properties addressed by Adler and praised for the brilliant color and ornament that shows some of Sullivan’s best work.  The mixed-use facility wrapped the 4,300-seat theatre with 136 offices and a 400-room hotel.  Neither of these were as profitable as intended, so the theatre has never been as self-sustaining as Peck hoped.  Its projecting tower housed the offices of Adler and Sullivan for some years, instituting a proud tradition in Chicago of architects vying for high office space from which they can survey the city below.

As much as it remains a fine theatre and became a successful adaptive reuse project (now housing Roosevelt University), the building is also the central monument of  the late great firm that dissolved only about five years after the Auditorium was complete.   Although it seems to defy logic, soon after the Auditorium opened, the partnership hit a wall, at least in part due to a nationwide economic slump,  from which it could not recover.  After scrambling for work, and churning out some pretty great things, in Chicago, St. Louis and Buffalo, Adler and Sullivan called it quits in 1895.  Well, at least Adler did, as he took a job working as a chief engineer in an elevator company, leaving a very grumpy Sullivan (without, apparently, much business acumen nor personal skills) to fend for himself.  Although Adler later returned to architecture, he did not go back to Sullivan, who by then was sliding to his eventual sad end.  After one final project in 1898 they never worked together again, although they maintained separate offices in the tower, the unintended mausoleum for the firm.  Adler died in 1900 and, long after losing his office and home, and many of his friends, Sullivan followed in 1924.

Image: the Auditorium Theatre, with the neighborhood the way it used to look (from this source)

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You are currently reading October 05: Architects Who Built Their Own Graves at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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