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Timeline: Auditorium Theatre turns 125-years-old

Today marks 125 years since the historic Auditorium Theatre first raised its golden curtains in the Loop, ushering in a new chapter in Chicago's history. Completed fewer than 20 years after the devastating Great Chicago Fire, the building—once the largest in the United States—remains a vivid example of the city's resilience.

Take a deeper look into the theatre's century-spanning history in the timeline below, with information and images courtesy of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Throughout the day today, keep an eye out for the Auditorium Theatre's birthday trolley, which will be making stops throughout the city and Loop. And tonight, the curtains will rise once again for a very special birthday celebration, "Living the History," in honor of the theatre's legacy.

Congratulations to the Auditorium Theatre—a true Chicago icon!


Huffington Post / Kellogg & Bulkeley. Lithograph, c. 1872. (ICHi-63131)

1871: On the evening of October 8, a fire starts in the barn behind the O’Leary cottage on DeKoven Street. In the next two days, most of the central city is destroyed.

1881: Louis Sullivan forms a partnership with Dankmar Adler to create the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan.

1885: William Le Baron Jenney completes the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, the first skyscraper to use a metal skeleton frame. Alder and Sullivan design a theater in the Interstate Exposition Building for the Chicago Opera Festival.

Chicago Sun-Times / Harper’s Weekly / Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CCW 46/5

1886: Ferdinand Wythe Peck, a Chicago business man, incorporates the Chicago Auditorium Association on December 8 for the purpose of developing the world’s largest, grandest, most expensive theater. The building is to include an office block and a first-class hotel. On the board are Marshall Field, Edson Keith, Martin Ryerson, George Pullman, and other Chicago business tycoons. Adler and Sullivan are hired to design the project, based on their work at the Interstate Exposition Building.

1887: On October 5, President Grover Cleveland lays the cornerstone for the Auditorium Building.

1888: The Republican National Convention is held in the partially-finished Auditorium Building. Benjamin Harrison is nominated. Adler and Sullivan hire young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright.

chicagology.com / Auditorium Theatre archives

1889: On December 9, President Benjamin Harrison dedicates the theatre before a standing room only crowd. Operatic idol Adelina Patti sings “Home, Sweet Home.” Adler and Sullivan open their offices on the 16th and 17th floor of the Auditorium tower.

1891: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts on October 16 and makes its home in the Auditorium Theatre until moving to Orchestra Hall in 1904.

1893: Thousands of visitors from all around the world flock to the World’s Columbian Exposition. Many of them attend the grand historical pageant, “America,” held in the Auditorium Theatre, which also played a major role in Chicago’s selection as the host city for the fair.

1900: Booker T. Washington, the founder of the first college for African American teachers, Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, addresses a capacity crowd at the Auditorium Theatre.

1912: Theodore Roosevelt gives his Armageddon speech at the Auditorium Theatre and is nominated for President of the United States by the independent National Progressive Party.

1921: The Chicago Opera Company’s performance of Madam Butterfly is broadcast live from the Auditorium Theatre. It is Chicago’s first live radio broadcast.

1929: The Chicago Opera Company leaves the Auditorium for its new home on Wacker Drive, leaving the Auditorium Theatre without a major tenant.

1933: In the midst of the Great Depression, Chicago raises $125,000 to refurbish the Auditorium Theatre in time for the Century of Progress World’s Fair.

1939: The Auditorium Theatre celebrates its 50th Anniversary.

1941: The Auditorium Theatre closes during the Great Depression.

Auditorium Theatre archives

1942: The Auditorium Theatre is taken over by the city and used as a World War II Servicemen’s Center, complete with a bowling alley on the stage.

1946: Roosevelt University moves its operations into the Auditorium Building, but the Auditorium Theatre is not restored.

1952: In order to widen Congress Street, a sidewalk is created through the south end of the building, destroying the hotel cafe, the famous long bar, and other original public areas.

1960: Mrs. Beatrice T. Spachner establishes the Auditorium Theatre Council to raise funds for the restoration of the theatre. Respected Chicago architect Harry Weese volunteers his services to restore the building to its former elegance.

Chicago Sun-Times

1967: The Auditorium Theatre reopens on October 31 with the New York City Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

1968: Anti-Vietnam war protesters clash with police in the streets outside the Auditorium Theatre and the Congress Hotel during the Democratic National Convention.

1968-75: The Auditorium Theatre serves as Chicago’s premier rock house, with performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and many others.

1970: The Auditorium Building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1975: The Auditorium Building obtains National Historic Landmark status.

1976: The Auditorium Building is designated a Chicago landmark.

1989: Les Misérables opens, ushering in a new era of Broadway blockbusters at the Auditorium Theatre during its 100th anniversary.

2000: The Auditorium Theatre receives a $13 million state grant to be used toward ongoing restoration efforts.

2001: The Auditorium Theatre begins the first phase of its major restoration project, which includes paint analysis throughout the theatre and restoring the proscenium, seating area, and remarkable ceiling arches to the original colors and finishes.

2002: The Auditorium Theatre initiates the second phase of its ongoing restoration project, highlighted by the removal and reconstruction of the theatre’s 113-year-old stage. The theatre’s versatility is increased by the construction of a new trap system and new orchestra pit with three separate lifts and removable seating. Phase II is completed by the installation of new artist support spaces, dressing rooms, and modern amenities. The world-famous Bolshoi Ballet returns to the Auditorium, performing to sold-out crowds and rave reviews.

Joffrey Ballet

2004: Broadway In Chicago joins The Joffrey Ballet as an Auditorium Theatre partner.

2005: The Auditorium Theatre launches its award-winning summer camp, Hands Together, Heart to Art.

2006: The Auditorium Theatre presents its first self-produced performance, Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz Gospel Messiah.

2012: On March 12, the Auditorium hosts the elevator dedication to celebrate the addition of a long-anticipated renovation. The elevator gives access to all six levels of the theater.

2014: The Auditorium Theatre announces the 125th Anniversary Season to be celebrated from September 2014 through August 2015.

(Timeline and header photo courtesy of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University)

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