One of the stockholders in the Central Music Hall sitting in the audience that night was a wealthy Chicago real estate heir and patron of the arts. Ferdinand W. Peck and his brothers had come into a substantial inheritance upon the death of their father in 1871, and the Peck boys grew their patrimony into an even larger and more substantial fortune in the years following the Great Fire. Ferd Peck was a big fan of grand opera, and by the mid-1880s the major domo of the Chicago Grand Opera Festival began a campaign to construct the largest and most acoustically perfect auditorium in the world in his hometown. He enlisted the help of his wealthy friends and fellow Music Hall investors like N.K. Fairbank, Marshall Field, Edson Keith, Levi Leiter, George Pullman, and began talks with Adler.
The architect’s reputation as the sublime supplier of acoustical perfection – and without a bad seat in the house – had soared after the completion of the Music Hall. By the time Peck and his Chicago Grand Auditorium Association came calling in 1886 Adler had acquired a partner, 29-year-old Louis Sullivan. Adler brought Sullivan into his office in 1879, and recognizing the immense talent of his employee, Adler invited Sullivan join him as a full partner in the firm in 1883. In addition to industrial, residential and commercial projects, Adler & Sullivan had reworked the auditorium of Chicago’s McVicker’s Theatre and had created an operatic performance space inside the enormous shell of the Interstate Exposition Building, but nothing anywhere near the scope of the new Grand Auditorium building had ever come across the architect’s drafting tables. Peck’s belief in Adler made other Association shareholders nervous, and although the investors agreed to give the pair a chance, all of the drawings produced by the firm had to be looked over by outside experts and given the okay. On January 30, 1887 excavation began on a large piece of property on the north side of Congress Street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues.
The property. The Association didn’t actually own the land that the largest private construction project ever undertaken in the United States would sit upon. Peck had used his real estate skills and connections to acquire the 363 x 187 x 160 foot plot under long term lease agreements which stretched for a term of 99 years. Long term land leases were not uncommon, but, unfortunately, it was a decision that would cause quite a kerfuffle years later. As for the building itself, although the primary impetus for the entire operation was to provide a top-notch theater for Chicagoans of all stripes, the stockholders were wary that the performance space would ever be able to pay for itself so the design included an income producing hotel and commercial office space. The idea of combining a theater with alternative income generating tenants wasn’t exactly new. Adler’s Music Hall was fronted on its State Street side with regularly paying office and retail tenants, and the old Crosby’s Opera House which had burned down in the fire, had ground floor retail, galleries, and office space for rent. The idea of incorporating a 400-room hotel into a theater project of this scale was untried, but with a number of hostelries already lining Michigan Avenue the Auditorium Hotel would not only join the row but provide visitors with the latest in luxury accommodations.
From the get-go, Peck not only wanted the grand auditorium to host opera for a mass audience, but businessman that he was, the enormous room was also intended to serve as a meeting place for any number of large gatherings – like conventions. The Republican National Party had chosen Chicago as the site for four of its presidential electoral gatherings since nominating Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the Republican confab in the Exposition Building in 1884 had given an extra incentive to Peck’s grand idea. What if Chicago were to become the go-to spot for all sorts of national conventions? The possibilities were endless. The Auditorium’s auditorium wasn’t exactly finished when the Party gathered together in the summer of 1888 to nominate Benjamin Harrison as their nominee. The brick walls were in place, and the space was covered by a roof and its supporting trusses, so with a few thousand Edison electric light bulbs and many more thousands of yards of bunting to mask the raw interior, the 8,000 attendees would be none the wiser.
On the night of December 9, 1889, almost ten years to the day that Adler’s Music Hall was revealed to the general public, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison and Vice President Levi Morton joined 4,237 other patrons as they listened to Carlotta Patti’s sister Adelina sing “Home, Sweet Home” to a packed house. The massive, brilliantly decorated auditorium surpassed all expectations. Those seated in the upper most row of the upper most balcony of Adler’s megaphone shaped room could not only see the diminutive soprano, but could hear her as clearly as if seated within feet of the stage. It marked another triumph for Adler and catapulted Sullivan into the pantheon of one of the world’s great, architectural visionaries. Unfortunately not long after the stellar debut, the “luxury” hotel was considered outdated when “in-bath” rooms became all the rage. After the Chicago’s symphony orchestra moved to a dedicated performance space in 1904, followed by the opera company 25 years later, office rents were all that the owners could rely on to try and keep the project afloat. The Great Depression clanged the building’s death knell. By the time Roosevelt College took an interest in the massive white elephant, the building was crumbling and one of the property owner’s estates owed over $1 million dollars in back taxes. Remember the 99-year deals Peck had made when he assembled the land in the late 1880s? Well Roosevelt was able to buy-up almost all of the encumbered ground underneath the building save for one parcel of property. Chicago attorney Abraham Teitelbaum owned 52 1/2 by 170 feet of soil beneath the north edge of the building on its Michigan Avenue side and he wanted $800,000 for his share. The school said no.
Eventually Teitelbaum settled for $336,623 and Roosevelt became the owners of the forlorn structure and, for the first time, the ground it stood on. Over the past 68 years, under the University’s stewardship, and the support of a dedicated board, volunteers, and the general public, the Auditorium Theatre will triumphantly celebrate its 125th anniversary with a gala performance by Carlotta and Adelina Patti’s great-grand niece Patti LuPone in Adler & Sullivan’s pitch perfect auditorium.