The Chicago Auditorium Building: Adler and Sullivan's Architecture and the City.

Author:Lewis, Michael J.
Position:The Chicago Tribune Competition: Skyscraper Design and Cultural Change in the 1920s - Book Review


The Chicago Auditorium Building: Adler and Sullivan's Architecture and the City

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 568 pp.: 16 color ills., 200 b/w. $55.00; $35.00 paper


The Chicago Tribune Competition: Skyscraper Design and Cultural Change in the 1920s

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 383 pp.; 187 b/w ills. $27.00

It was not long ago that American architectural history consisted chiefly of biographies, thematic or typological studies, and synthetic surveys. The monographic approach, the thoroughgoing investigation of the patronage, design, construction, and iconography of a single building--like that accorded the monuments of Europe--was unknown. But in recent years detailed monographs have begun appearing, and to scholarly acclaim. Joseph Siry's study of the Chicago Auditorium Building received the Society of Architectural Historians' Alice Davis Hitchcock Award in 2003. Katherine Solomonson accomplished the same feat the following year with her account of the Chicago Tribune Building. These two Chicago landmarks are very different buildings, and Siry and Solomonson have written two very different books.

The Auditorium Building (1887-89), which vaulted Louis Sullivan to national prominence, is regarded as his first mature work. It is a building of much complexity: a romanesque leviathan of granite and lime-stone occupying half a city block, into which is tucked a hotel, an office building, and an opera house with more than 4,200 seats (the largest in the world at the time of its construction). In neither style nor technology is it particularly innovative. It is an explicit paraphrase of H. H. Richardson's nearby Marshall Field Building (1885-87), from which it derives its blocklike massing, its colossal masonry, and the bold, ordered stride of its wall arcades. Its construction is likewise conventional for the period: load-bearing masonry for the exterior walls and a hybrid system of iron columns and steel girders within (pp. 161-62).

Perhaps the Auditorium's most singular feature is the way it expresses its function--or does not. For the nineteenth century, the central challenge of opera house design was to signify rhetorically its function and interior spaces. The opera houses of Charles Garnier in Paris and Gottfried Semper in Dresden are memorable precisely because their expressive physiognomy is a kind of exultant precis of the spaces and happenings within. The theater of the Auditorium Building, however, goes unrepresented on the outside; apart from three capacious arches on Congress Street and the rugged tower that rises above them, there is not a hint of the large public spaces beyond, and certainly not of spaces of stupefying luxuriance. It is the decorative and chromatic treatment of these rooms that established Sullivan's reputation, which at first was not that of the pioneering functionalist he would later become, but rather as America's most original and imaginative designer of architectural ornament.

The Chicago Auditorium Building, Siry's authoritative and well-illustrated study of this monument of the Chicago school, accomplishes precisely what a monograph should: it does full justice to the building in its specific historical and local context even as it illuminates those particular aspects that lift it above its age. Among the new material Siry presents on nearly every page, some of the most interesting concerns the Auditorium's patron, Ferdinand W. Peck (1848-1924). The scholarly literature on Sullivan has always contained more than a hint of hagiography, following the tone that he himself set. In consequence, the role of clients in his career, with a very few exceptions, has been slighted. In the case of Peck, this is especially lamentable.

Peck was that characteristic Gilded Age type, the capitalist-philanthropist, and one of phenomenal energy and executive ability. Acutely conscious that "vast numbers of people, by settling in Chicago, had given immense value to the Peck estate," he worked hard to reciprocate by promoting philanthropic and workingmen's associations (p. 35). He was the leading figure behind the Chicago Athenaeum, established after the fire of...

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