“The Significance of The Auditorium Building” – by art historian Rolf Achilles

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Above Image: Bonnie McDonald [president of Landmarks Illinois] with art historian Rolf Achilles
at Roosevelt University’s Murray-Green Library.


Year 2014, marks the 125th anniversary of the Auditorium Building, built in 1889.

In celebration, Landmark Illinois in partnership with Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University presents,

Preservation Snapshots lecture series on the Auditorium Building.

The first in the series is “International Superstar! The Significance of The Auditorium Building”

Speaker: Art historian Rolf Achilles



Location: Roosevelt University’s Murray-Green Library

Date: Jan 16, 2014.


Ganz Hall, Auditorium Bldg

Ganz Hall, Auditorium Bldg


The Landmarks Illinois website gives a context to the lecture..click here..
When some of the Auditorium’s decorative elements, such as the stained glass and metal work designed by Louis Sullivan and fabricated by Healy & Millet, were shown at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, no one in Europe had ever seen work like this. The Auditorium as a total work of innovative art was the model for the Liszt Music Academy in Budapest and the great music hall in the auditorium in Prague’s Municipal House, parts of which were decorated by Alphonse Mucha. European cultural awareness of Chicago was increased by the Auditorium Building more than any other single Chicago building.



Art historian Rolf Achilles

Art historian Rolf Achilles, speaking at Roosevelt University’s Murray-Green Library


Rolf Achilles is an independent art historian and architectural historian, curator of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, adjunct faculty of the School of Art Institute of Chicago [SAIC]. A writer and lecturer on various topics related to preserving American artistic heritage. Rolf is the author of books “The Chicago School of Architecture” and “American Movie Palaces”. He is also a past Landmarks Illinois Board of Directors, Chair and still part of the Louis Sullivan Society.







[Introduction]  Auditorium building completed in 1889, was at the time the most important building in the world. I say that as a superlative, but also try to back it up with imagery and with discussions, that I will show you in a few seconds here, about how Chicago becomes the important center for architecture and design, specifically in the decorative arts from 1889 to about 1895 or so…


With this introduction, speaker Rolf Achilles then moves on to discuss the various innovative styles and techniques that were used in Auditorium Bldg. which later inspired art and architecture in Europe. The new methods ranged over an entire spectrum of decorative arts, including, stained glass windows, art metal-works,  lighting fixtures, decorative plaster ornamentation and the multi-functional use of the building itself.  The Auditorium building features widespread use of opalescent glass, which was invented in America. There is also extensive use of beveled and faceted glass, which were yet to be seen in Europe. The interior design of the building is characterized by complex curvilinear patterns of intertwining branches, flowers, leaves and vinesThese intricate patterns are seen  in all the elements of  design, including stained glass windows, metal works, mosaics, plaster and wood works. Such organic curvilinear decorative patterns are hallmark of Art Nouveau style.  But Auditorium building was completed in 1889, that is, even before the term Art Nouveau was coined, which happened sometime in 1895.  [More on this later in the post….]..  The talk establishes, with the aid of numerous examples and images,   how the design of Auditorium building influenced the development of Art Nouveau style of art and architecture in Europe.  Another interesting feature of the building, is the use of scagliola as a substitute for marble-inlays.  The light fixtures have exposed light-bulbs and there is absence of chandeliers. These features are later emulated in European buildings.  To top it all, the auditorium building is a mixed use building with restaurant, theater and office space.  Such multi-functioning buildings were yet to seen in Europe.  The talk very conclusively establishes how these innovative features of Auditorium building inspired art and architecture in Europe.


Speaker Rolf Achilles concluded the talk asserting that the one thing that can be taken from this lecture, “is that Art Nouveau has several sources. The key source, the main source, is Chicago. Other sources are Paris, Brussels, and Vienna. They all learned from Chicago. They learned from Healy and Millet. They learned from Dankmar Adler and his composition of this Auditorium building, and they learned from the decorative patterning and brilliant designing of Louis Sullivan”.

And here is more on what I learned on the significance of auditorium building on the art and architecture of Europe..


Stained Glass in Auditorium bldg.

Stained Glass in Auditorium bldg.


Stained Glass in Auditorium Building: There is widespread use of opalescent glass in the Auditorium building. Opalescent glass was invented in America, patented by John Lafarge in 1880 and a variation of the process was patented by Tiffany in 1881 [which he named as Favrile glass]. Opalescent glass is milky with streaky colors and iridescent sheen. The glass is colored internally and not painted on. Traditionally Europeans were using glass as a canvas, and painted on it. In America they were painting with glass, rather than painting on glass. Auditorium building has abundant use of opalescent glass. The use of faceted and beveled glass, making stained glass three-dimensional, which again was not yet prevalent in Europe. Another outstanding feature of the stained glass windows in the Auditorium building, is the complex curvilinear patterns, with swirls, whiplash, and  interlace. But and these are not restricted to stained glass windows, and can be seen in other elements of decorative art in the building, like metal works, mosaics and plaster, as illustrated in the images below..



Complex curvilinear patterns in Auditorium Building.  The above images show that the organic design with curvilinear foliate motifs and intertwined vines that dominate every element of decorative art in the building . Such flowing curvilinear patterns are hallmark of the Art Nouveau style. However, the Auditorium building was completed in 1889, and the first time the term “Art Nouveau” was used was in 1895, when Siegfried Bing opened his gallery “Maison de l’Art Nouveau” [from which the term Art Nouveau is derived]. In the talk, speaker Rolf Achilles establishes how the decorative elements of auditorium building influences the Art Nouveau in Europe.

Important in the dissemination of information were the World’s Fair of 1889 in Paris, and 1893 in Chicago.  At the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, stained glass windows from Auditorium building were at display. The stained glass designed by Louis Sullivan and fabricated by Healy & Millet, were purchased and are still at display at Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In  the 1893e World’s Fair in Chicago, the leading art dealer of Paris, Siegfried Bing visited Chicago.  Later, in 1895, he established a gallery in Paris called “Maison de l’Art Nouveau”. His gallery subsequently provided the name Art Nouveau. Another important name associated with Art Nouveau is Belgian architect and designer Victor Horta, who again was influenced by 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. His own home and studio and the Tassel House he designed in Brussels are said to be among the earliest representation of Art Nouveau in architecture. Both these buildings were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000. In the talk Rolf Achilles establishes how the decorative arts of these building show strong influence of Chicago’s Auditorium building.


Exposed light fixture in Auditorium bldg

Exposed light fixture in Auditorium bldg


Light Fixtures at Auditorium building:  Another novelty of this building is the illumination technique with no central chandelier and exposed light bulbs illuminating the building. This was not yet prevalent in Europe. Some other highlights of the Auditorium building include substitution of scagliola for marble inlays and the multi-functional use of the building with hotel, auditorium, offices and restaurant. Europeans did not have buildings like this. All these elements later start showing up in Europe.

So Chicago’s Auditorium Building is an International Superstar!
Scroll down to see the entire lecture..



VIDEO excerpts from the lecture
For the full lecture, just scroll further down ..




Above Video: Stained glass at Auditorium bldg.



Above Video: Metal Works at Auditorium bldg.



Above Video: Multi-functional purposes of the Auditorium bldg.




Above Video: The entire speech by Rolf Achilles..



It was a day very well spend!

Thanks to Rolf Achilles for the wonderful talk

And to Landmarks Illinois for organizing the lecture series.

Enjoy some more images from the Auditorium bldg.!




Auditorium Theater.. click here..


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  1. […] work made it the greatest building in the world in its time. An illustrated overview of his talk, The Significance of the Auditorium Building, is posted on Jyoti Srivastava’s Pubic Art in Chicago blog. Achilles full speech is at the end of […]

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