During World War II the celebrated theater became a bowling alley.
During World War II the celebrated theater became a bowling alley. Credit: Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations

The Auditorium Theatre threw itself a 125th birthday party last week, on its own capacious stage. John Mahoney was the master of ceremonies, and Broadway’s Patti LuPone was the star attraction.

No one needs an excuse to feature LuPone, but on this occasion there was a good one: her great-grand aunt, diva Adelina Patti, was the headliner for the Auditorium Theatre’s grand opening program on December 9, 1889, knocking ’em dead with a rendition of “Home! Sweet Home!” in a pure operatic soprano.

The anniversary audience heard some of that on a vintage recording before LuPone cut loose with numbers from Evita and Gypsy, delivered with her signature emotional punch. She also braved an unamplified rendition of “Sleepy Man,” from The Robber Bridegroom, a musical she’d appeared in on the Auditorium stage back in the 70s.

This theater, she reminded the audience, was made for acoustic performance.

The checkered history of the landmark Auditorium Building and its 3,900-seat theater provided the narrative for the evening. Designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (when Frank Lloyd Wright was a draftsman at their firm), it was the nation’s largest structure when it opened, and one of the first mixed-use buildings. Besides the theater, built as an opera house (with its entrance on Congress), the building housed a 400-room hotel (facing Michigan Avenue) and 136 offices (oriented toward Wabash). Businessman Ferdinand Peck, who dreamed it up to put postfire Chicago on the international map (does that sound familiar?) and bring culture to the masses, figured that the hotel and offices would subsidize the theater.

It was an architectural and engineering marvel, a mammoth Romanesque block of limestone and granite, sporting an 18-story tower and floating on a raftlike foundation of railroad ties, concrete, and steel set in a bed of Chicago clay—into which it promptly sank a foot or more, necessitating steps down from the sidewalk on Congress into the lobby. The theater was equipped with cutting-edge technology that included 26 hydraulic lifts for the stage, a first-ever central-air-conditioning system that consumed 15 tons of ice daily, and 3,500 of those newfangled carbon-filament lightbulbs. Inside, it was a sort of dungeon-meets-fairyland—all curves and arches, outlined in lights, graced with exquisite murals, the stage framed by an expanding series of gilded semicircles that form the airy ceiling. Adler and Sullivan’s groundbreaking democratic seating plan put the costly box seats on the far sides and the cheap seats on the main floor. Called the “eighth wonder of the world,” the theater generated a global buzz that helped Chicago land the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

But by the 1930s, when the symphony and opera companies had moved into their own buildings and the hotel, with its old-fashioned shared bathrooms, had fallen out of favor, the Auditorium Building was in trouble. Only its mass saved it from being demolished: it would have cost too much to take it down. Acquired by the city in the early 1940s, it became a World War II serviceman’s center, complete with barracks. The celebrated theater was converted into a bowling alley.

After the war, in the face of a more likely threat of demolition, the building was purchased by newly established Roosevelt University, which moved into the former hotel and office space. But the university didn’t have money for restoration, and the theater remained shuttered for more than two decades. And here’s something that deserves more attention than it usually gets: it was the nearly single-handed multiyear effort of a determined university trustee, Beatrice T. Spachner, that made it possible for the theater to reopen. With the blessing of founding Roosevelt president Edward J. Sparling, Spachner formed the Auditorium Theatre Council, which raised $3 million for restoration (and much more money later) and operated the theater after its relaunch in 1967. After that, everyone from the Bolshoi Ballet to the Grateful Dead passed through.

So in the later 20th century the theater and university coexisted more or less independently. And there were times when the theater prospered as a venue while the university struggled. In the mid-90s, then-president Theodore Gross decided the future of Roosevelt—founded as an urban school dedicated to social justice—was in the suburbs. Intent on building a sister campus in Schaumburg, he looked around for the roughly $17.5 million he needed to do it, spotted $3 million in the theater’s pot, and in spite of previous agreements that the theater’s money would be its own, reached for half of it. Two council members filed suit to prevent money intended for further restoration and maintenance of the theater from being spent to take the university to Schaumburg. An eight-year legal struggle for control of the theater followed.

Roosevelt won the battle with a state supreme court decision in 2002. The lawsuit wound up costing millions more than had originally been at stake, but it resulted in a restructuring that gave the school absolute control of the venue, which became the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Meanwhile, Gross had found a major donor, and the Schaumburg campus opened in 1996. Last August, Gross’s successor, Roosevelt president Charles Middleton, dealing with enrollment declines and a high debt load—mostly from construction of the Chicago campus’s new 32-story, $123 million Wabash Building—announced that by the end of this year the Schaumburg facility would be cut back to focus primarily on pharmacy and biomedical sciences. In a reversal of Gross’s strategy, Roosevelt is now betting its future on younger, full-time students on its city campus.

This month Middleton, who’s retiring at the end of the school year, appeared at the number five slot on a Chronicle of Higher Education list of the nation’s highest-paid private-college presidents. In 2012 his compensation, including a base salary of $465,000 and deferred monies, was $1.76 million.

Also this month, the Wabash Building was named the nation’s “best property” by the U.S. chapter of the International Real Estate Federation. It’s in the running for the international title.

That makes Roosevelt, apparently at a turning point, steward of two of the world’s best buildings.