The lobby of Chicago’s grand Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Congress Parkway) isn’t overtly spectacular. The floors contain original mosaic tile and the staircases are tastefully embellished with a touch of architect Louis Sullivan’s signature ornate styling, but as a whole, the theater almost looks plain upon first glance.
However, during one of the theater’s new evening tours, visitors will learn just how magnificent the theater really is.
Evening tours are offered at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights, giving college students the chance to stop by and explore a piece of Chicago’s history after classes. To get a glimpse at what to expect from one of them, The PHOENIX was given a private tour by the Auditorium Theatre’s associate director of communications, Lily Oberman.
“[The theater’s founder] Ferdinand Peck wanted the Auditorium to be a place where anyone could come and enjoy a show,” Oberman said while standing in the understated lobby near a bust of Peck. “He wanted the people who built the theater to be able to come here.”
When the Auditorium was built in 1889, working class Chicagoans didn’t have the money to attend an opera or a ballet at a fancy theater, according to Oberman. She said that’s why Peck and Sullivan — as well as Sullivan’s business partner, Dankmar Adler — purposefully designed the theater to be accessible to people from all classes, not just the wealthy opera connoisseurs.
“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Oberman said. “Except for the box seats, and that’s on purpose.”
Oberman explained that the architects of the theater were resistant to putting box seats in at all, since they wanted to create a space for the working class of the day. She mentioned that Sullivan is quoted in Joseph M. Siry’s book, “The Chicago Auditorium Building: Adler and Sullivan’s Architecture and the City,” as saying, “We are democratic in America and the masses demand the best seats. The boxes, you see, are on the sides and do not furnish the best possible view … Those occupying boxes in America desire to be seen, probably, more than they desire to see.”
Upon entering the theater’s main performance space, which contains original hardwood floors, more than 3,800 seats covered in gold fabric and an expandable stage, it becomes obvious it wasn’t designed to cater to the elite. The luxurious box seats are shoved against the walls — placed there deliberately by Adler and Sullivan — while the floor seats fan out from the stage, perfectly positioned to take advantage of the theater’s stunning acoustics.
Oberman said the Auditorium, owned by Roosevelt University, has been hosting daytime tours on Mondays and Thursdays for years, and offering a tour after 5 p.m. gives more people an opportunity to visit the theater and learn about its history.
“If you’re a working professional or you’re only in town for a few days … there really wasn’t an opportunity for you to come explore the theater unless you were coming to a show,” Oberman said. “We felt that we would be able to reach a new audience by starting these evening tours.”
Floor level is where tour-goers get their first view of the historic building’s beauty, with its arched ceiling and gold-painted walls. The Auditorium still contains several original features — including carpeting, restored wall murals and several rows of seats on the sixth floor — in order to maintain its National Historic Landmark status, which it received in 1975.
During its 128-year lifespan, the Auditorium has hosted a variety of events besides plays and operas, such as baseball games and rock concerts. That seems surprising when looking at its grandeur, but Oberman said that’s part of what makes this theater so unique.
Another unique characteristic of the theater is its lighting in the main performance space, provided by thousands of original 19th-century light bulbs.
“One of the things that the theater’s really known for is its beautiful golden arches,” Oberman said. “People gasp when they walk in — they look up and they see this beautiful golden glow. When the theater first opened, a lot of people hadn’t really seen light bulbs at all, so when they walked into the theater they were met with this blinding light. People were really in awe of that.”
Even in 2018, the Auditorium Theatre is still awe-inspiring — especially from the sixth floor balcony, which is the final stop on the tour. It’s a dizzying view that might leave visitors breathless both from wonder and vertigo. If it’s silent enough, the acoustics will allow tour goers to hear conversations happening on the stage below even from this height, according to Oberman.
Oberman said offering tours of places like the Auditorium Theatre is important because Chicago has a rich cultural history that deserves to be honored and remembered.
“When you’re going to a theater to see a show, you’re only really getting half of the experience,” she said. “When I see shows [at the Auditorium Theatre], I think it’s really cool to know that [performers] are on a stage that’s also hosted a circus and … speakers like [Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg have spoken from. I think it enriches the whole experience.”
Oberman encouraged both frequent patrons of the theater and those who have never visited to stop by on a Tuesday night after work or class, as there’s something in it for everyone.
“Come take a tour and see a show, and you’ll be an Auditorium expert,” she said.
Daytime tours of the Auditorium Theatre are offered Mondays at 10:30 a.m. and noon, Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. Tickets range from $12-$20 and can be purchased at auditoriumtheatre.org, or at the theater’s box office 30 minutes prior to start times.