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  • The Industrial Evolution of the Arts: Chicago’s Auditorium Building (1889–) as Cultural Machine
  • Mark Clague (bio)

Chicago had had the biggest conflagration “in the world.” It was the biggest grain and lumber market “in the world.” It was the greatest railroad center, the greatest this, and the greatest that. The shouters could not well be classed with the proverbial liars of Ecclesiastes, because what they said was true; and had they said, in the din, we are the crudest, rawest, most savagely ambitious dreamers and would-be doers in the world, that also might be true. . . . These men had vision. What they saw was real, they saw it as destiny.

—Auditorium architect Louis Sullivan1

American Opera as Institute: Engaging Society, Finance, and Art

In his closing remarks at the First Chicago Opera Festival on April 18, 1885, real estate mogul Ferdinand Peck introduced the public to his idea of building a permanent home for grand opera in Chicago—what four years later would become the Auditorium Building (fig. 1). Addressing the audience in his role as festival president, Peck proclaimed the extraordinary success of the two-week, fourteenperformance gala, which had included works by Bellini (I puritani and La sonnambula), Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor and Linda di Chamounix), Gounod (Faust and Mireilla), Meyerbeer (L’Africaine), Rossini (Semiramide), Verdi (Aida and Il trovatore), Wagner (Lohengrin), and Weber (Der Freischütz), plus stars such as sopranos Adelina Patti and Emma Nevada and contralto Sofia Scalchi.2 He highlighted what was believed to be world-record attendance (possibly over ninety to one hundred thousand people)3 and revenues ($132,000)4 for such a festival by suggesting that these results justified the construction of a permanent opera house. With effusive pride the Chicago Tribune reported that

[Peck] desired to thank the people of this city for their generous attendance upon Chicago’s first opera festival. It had been a success in every respect, and the management had done its best to accommodate and please the public. Their motto had been “Music for the people”—splendid music, interpreted by the first artists [End Page 477] of the world. The management had accomplished a task that could have been accomplished in no other city in the world—that of constructing this great auditorium in six weeks and producing upon its stage thirteen different operas. This had shown what Chicago would and could do, and he hoped that people would look upon this as a stepping-stone to a great permanent hall where similar enterprises would have a home.


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Figure 1.

Chicago’s Auditorium Building, c. 1889. The tower marks the entrance to the theater, while the three arches facing the park offer entry to the hotel. Photo from America from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, Series 1, ed. G. R. Cromwell (New York: James Clarke, 1894).

Peck rode the tide of applause to assert Chicago’s needs for a large public auditorium and preached the advantages of such a hall. He saw in music, and opera in particular, a means for the city and its people to fulfill their pioneering destiny—a way to provide for the continuing refinement of the civic enterprise. The Tribune continued, quoting from Peck’s speech:

The continuation of this annual festival, with magnificent music, at prices within the reach of all, would have a tendency to diminish crime and Socialism in our city by educating the masses to higher things.

[Applause . . . ] In conclusion, [Peck] desired to express his thanks to the directors who had assisted him so materially, to the men in the employ of the association, to [End Page 478] Mr. Milward Adams, who had so ably cared for the public in the auditorium, and to the press of the Northwest, which had been so magnanimous in its treatment of the enterprise. The festival had been given with no regard to monetary gain, and it had been a great success socially, financially, and artistically. [Applause.]6

This tripartite combination of social, financial, and artistic components generated, along with civic pride, the impulse behind Chicago’s Auditorium Building (1889– ). Architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan typically are...


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