The “Madhouse” Architecture of Chicago Stadium

The old Chicago Stadium stood on the Near West Side for nearly 60 years until the United Center replaced it. Known as the “Madhouse on Madison” because of its rollicking crowds, the venue hosted the Blackhawks, Bulls, national political conventions, and even an NFL playoff game. Because of its architectural design, it had deafening acoustics and vertiginous seating. So let’s explore what made this Chicago Stadium so raucous.

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architecture of Chicago Stadium interior 1930

The Chaotic Architecture of Chicago Stadium

Chicago Stadium was the largest indoor arena on Earth when it opened in 1929. Its location was on the Near West Side of Chicago, about a mile from the Loop. Its steel trusses spanned 266 feet without supports in order to provide all the fans with unobstructed views. I once watched a baseball game from behind a steel beam at the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, so I can appreciate a design that doesn’t give an unobstructed view.

The steel trusses of the Chicago had a big impact on the acoustics and atmosphere. They lent the stadium a vast uninterrupted space that was often described as barn-like. The architecture of Chicago Stadium, which was unique for its time, meant that the crowd’s cheering could bounce off the walls and ceilings. A massive 3,663-pipe Baton organ sound enhanced the noise. Played continuously throughout the games, the organ’s drone combined with the cheering to create a deafening cacophony. A yacht’s foghorn under the scoreboard celebrated when Blackhawks made a goal. Just thinking about the crowd, organ, and horn going at once makes my ears ring.

Crazy Crowds

Chicago Stadium was also famous for how enthused the crowd would become during the singing of the National Anthem. The crowd actually drowned out the song by cheering so loudly during the 1991 NHL All-Star Game.

Noise wasn’t the only form of intimidation provided by the architecture of Chicago Stadium. The arrangement of the stands added a dizzying and overwhelming sight for visiting teams. The stadium had a triple-layer bowl design. And it was uniquely large for its time, but is pretty typical in stadiums today. Beyond the size, steepness of the stands was impressive. The second and third tiers were built almost directly above the bottom bowl. This meant that the upper decks felt directly overhead from the floor. This image from a political convention at the stadium gives a sense of just how vertiginous those stands were.

I found accounts from fans who said climbing that the nose-bleed seats were so high and steep that the stairs felt more like a ladder. Fans up there were infamously drunken and rowdy to boot. Games frequently stopped so that the players could watch the audience brawling in the upper decks!

A Venue from a Different Era

architecture of Chicagio Stadium exterior
The exterior architecture of Chicago Stadium should look familiar to those who have visited the United Center.

Other elements to Chicago Stadium  lent it an air of barely-contained chaos. It was the first stadium to use air conditioning, but the system barely worked so it was still stifling. It also used a confusing analog clock for timekeeping for a period of time. Each of the four-sides of the clock had four clock faces, which showed, respectively, the hour, time left in a period, and time left in a penalty. I cannot begin to imagine how confusing it must have been to see all four clocks running at once.

Of course, Chicago Stadium no longer exists. Crews demolished it in 1995, after the Bulls and Blackhawks moved into the newly-constructed United Center. The United Center is a modern stadium, built with corporate suites and spectator safety as paramount concerns. And it has a little more sensitivity to the acoustics! It’s a nice-enough venue, but it lacks the crazy magic of the original Madhouse on Madison.

– Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact about Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through custom tours, content production, and virtual events.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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