The Amazing Architecture of the Auditorium Theater

Recently I wrote an article for the Detours blog listing the most overlooked beautiful buildings in Chicago. A few days later we received an email from an employee of the Auditorium Theater. She asked why their historic venue had not been included. I replied, in all honesty, that I didn’t think the Auditorium Theater was overlooked. Rather, it is rightfully lauded as one of the most famous and beautiful examples of Chicago’s historic architecture.

She invited me on a tour of the magnificent space to reconfirm the Auditorium Theater’s standing as one of Chicago’s most spectacular structures. I happily accepted, as a tour always promises tons of information and stories one cannot glean from readings.

Friends, the Auditorium Theater tour did not disappoint. In fact, it convinced me that Adler and Sullivan’s masterpiece should be front and center in any and all discussions of Chicago architectural history.

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Auditorium Theater Louis Sullivan Dankmar Adler intricate designs
The intricate designs and atmospheric architecture of the Auditorium Theater’s mezzanines. Photo by Alex Bean.

A Noble Impulse Led to the Auditorium Theater

Gilded Age Chicago saw numerous calamities and social upheavals. The Great Fire of 1871 incinerated the nascent metropolis. As it rebuilt amidst the rubble, Chicago’s already-enormous commercial and industrial interests grew ever-larger. Immigrants and migrants crowded into a city divided between soaring wealth and bitter poverty. Crippling strikes gripped the city in 1877 and 1886. The latter year saw tens of thousands of workers engage in a series of strikes that culminated with the infamous Haymarket Affair.

Amidst this turmoil, real estate tycoon Ferdinand Peck decided to heal the city’s wounds with a grand new structure bringing fine arts to the all classes. Peck lined up funds from bigwigs like Field and Pullman then hired the budding architecture firm of Adler and Sullivan. The duo designed the largest theater in the world and placed it within the world’s largest multi-purpose building. The theater itself seats over 3,900 and takes up about 40% of the building’s volume. Peck subsidized construction and maintenance of this enormous space with a 400-room luxury hotel on Michigan Boulevard and a 136-suite office building on Wabash. The unprecedented, audacious size of the structure inspired awe. The Auditorium Building was often touted as the largest, tallest and heaviest building since the Great Pyramids.

Adler Engineers a Monumental Structure

Auditorium Theater Louis Sullivan Dankmar Adler slanted floor uneven foundation lobby
I held the camera level. The slant comes from the foundation of the Auditorium Theater sinking up to 36 inches. Photo by Alex Bean.

I have led many private tour guests into the old hotel lobby of the Auditorium. They delight to hear about Dankmar Adler‘s structural innovations. The outer walls are masonry construction, not the lighter and stronger steel. They bear the weight of all that theatrical, office, and hotel space. Normally, the walls distribute such a heavy load on a bedrock foundation. Unfortunately the Auditorium’s site didn’t have accessible bedrock. 120 feet of soft blue clay undergirds the Auditorium.

So Adler ingeniously engineered a gargantuan floating raft foundation. The building’s weight floats above the clay on criss-crossed railroad ties layered beneath a double-stack of steel beams, all coated in pitch to make the foundation watertight. Incredibly, my tour guide at the Auditorium Theater, Nick, told me of rumors that one can see running water below the theater’s lowest levels. Despite these precautions, the structure still sank at an alarming rate. The outer stone walls are much heavier than the interior, causing the floors to sink up to 36 inches. Yikes!

Auditorium Theater Louis Sullivan Dankmar Adler upper level hoods
A whisper on stage can be heard perfectly even at the upper-most level of the bullhorn-shaped theater. Photo by Alex Bean.

Adler also crafted the famously perfect acoustics of the theater. Every noise on stage can be heard perfectly even at the upper-most level. The Auditorium Theater is shaped like a bullhorn, funneling sound waves through a series of arches and angled panels. Nick told me that members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra still complain about how much worse the acoustics are in their Symphony Center.

The Auditorium Theater is Sullivan’s Masterwork

Louis Sullivan Dankmar Adler stencil detail
Louis Sullivan’s ornate, flowering stencil work in luminous ochre is just one of the breath-taking designs in the Auditorium Theater. Photo by Alex Bean.

For all of Adler’s engineering prowess, his partner really stole the show at the Auditorium Theater. Louis Sullivan, one of our greatest architects, could have designed only this space and his fame and reputation would be secure. Sullivan was an iconoclastic architect. He rejected the Beaux Arts classicism that his peers brought back from Paris. Instead of looking to the old world for stylistic inspiration, Sullivan blazed a new decorative trail that set the stage for American architecture in the 20th century.

Sullivan’s most famous adage “form follows function” stressed that the design of a structure must reflect its intended usage. Thus the Auditorium Theater’s bullhorn shape centers on the stage and the astounding ornament all radiates from that centrifugal space.

Louis Sullivan Dankmar Adler arch design vent
Sullivan’s incredible ornamental details are among the most beautiful in the world. Photo by Alex Bean.

That intricate ornamentation is certainly the most remarkable and memorable aspect of the Auditorium Theater’s architecture. 3,500 Edison lightbulbs cast a luminous golden glow across the cavernous hall. Sullivanesque detailing in metal, gold leaf, terra cotta and stencil adorns a multitude of surfaces. This precise, rich work is somehow incredibly elaborate without ever being ostentatious. It harmonizes with Adler’s grand structure, making the entire theater brim with aesthetic grandeur.

Go Take a Tour

I could go on and on about the Auditorium Theater. It brought the Columbian Exposition to Chicago. It played a pivotal role in American political history. The whole structure was shuttered, nearly demolished, and then almost converted into a parking garage! Countless musicians from the Gilded Age to the Age of Aquarius have harnessed its acoustic powers. Yet nothing I write can match the full majestic experience of entering the Auditorium Theater and experiencing Adler and Sullivan’s timeless creation. Go take a tour and then we can rave together.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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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.
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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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