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The Auditorium


Chicago businessman Ferdinand Peck incorporated the Chicago Auditorium Association in 1886. With fellow board members Marshall Field (merchant prince), George Pullman (rail car manufacturer and Capitalist prick) and Martin Ryerson (steel producer and frequent Sullivan client), Peck set out to build America’s finest performance space and enlisted Adler & Sullivan to design it. Hard-nosed capitalists all, Peck & Co. appear to have driven the program toward self-sustenance: the 3,000 seat auditorium would be surrounded by a profit-making hotel and office space. Historian Joseph Siry has written more extensively about the project than I can here.


Suffice to say, a large windowless volume for performance requires few if any openings and would normally present a bald and unattractive public face without the human scale that office and hotel windows might afford. In the intervening century and a quarter we’ve become used to such large free-standing cultural statements, whose masses can be tempered, even sublimated, in other ways. For some contemporary practitioners, this has been their step to starchitect status.


What’s remarkable about all these buildings is that the program for performance halls has remained relatively unchanged in proportion since Charles Garnier designed the Paris Opera: 1/3 audience arrival and service; 1/3 auditorium; 1/3 back-of-the-house. In Chicago’s case, the profit-generating shell was quite literally frosting on the cake.

So in the spirit of pragmatic hard-nosed capitalists of the Robber Baron era, Agincourt’s auditorium would also have its hall wrapped in offices and, ten years after its construction, be linked by a pedestrian bridge to the community’s finest hostelry, The Blenheim, across the street. One imagines the whoosh of silk and taffeta amid whiffs of cigar.


This design intention of mine dates from late April 2006, just over eight years ago if my sketchbook can be believed. And as confirmation of its spirit, look at the postcard below showing the Gedney Hotel (yes, of pickle fame) wrapped around the opera house of Independence, Iowa. Whatever madness this may be, at least there is method to it.


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