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As part of its ongoing restoration efforts, Auditorium Theatre recently restored intricate, Louis Sullivan-designed stencils in the theater’s north Dress Circle inglenook. Sullivan, considered the father of modernism and a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, is known for his ornate designs and painstaking attention to detail. In the 129-year-old theater’s earliest days, his designs covered the arches, ceilings, and columns of the Auditorium Theatre lobby spaces. The theater will continue this restoration work in the south inglenook and the ceiling arches of the Dress Circle lobby, beginning in January.
"We are committed to the restoration and preservation of our landmark theatre,” says Rachel Freund, Interim Chief Executive Officer of the Auditorium Theatre. “By restoring these original stencils, designed by Louis Sullivan himself, we stay true to this mission and get another step closer to returning the theatre to its original splendor. We look forward to continuing this important work.”
On Wednesday, December 12, Chicago cultural historian and director of the Chicago Architectural Preservation Archive Tim Samuelson discussed the significance of this work with Anthony Kartsonas of the art restoration firm, Historic Surfaces, who oversaw the stenciling and painting process, and Matthew McNicholas, Auditorium Theatre board member and co-founder of MGLM Architects.
“Putting these stencils back really calls into play what made Sullivan a special architect and also what makes this one of the greatest buildings on the planet,” Samuelson said.
In 2014, the theater began to renovate its second floor Dress Circle lobby – now named the Elissa Lobby, in honor of Elissa Efroymson of the Efroymson Family Fund. During this process, photographs taken in 1890 were unearthed, depicting Sullivan’s stencil work that had since been painted over. The Auditorium Theatre was then able to find Sullivan’s original stencils, and specialists at Historic Surfaces replicated and repainted the stencils over the summer of 2018.
Samuelson, who witnessed the theater’s major renovation in the 1950s and 1960s and its subsequent 1967 re-opening (following a nearly 26-year closure), noted that many of Sullivan’s stencils were recovered during that time. “But the money wasn’t there to put them back,” he explained. “The place still looked great … but it was like having the finest Stradivarius but it’s a little out of tune. What we see here will give you an idea of what happens when you tune her up.”
Other recent restoration and renovation work around the theater meant to enhance visitor and artist experience includes the installation of new hot water heaters and the purchase of a new Harlequin sprung dance floor for the theater’s landmark stage. Additionally, the theater repainted each of its six lobby levels over the summer, brightening and refreshing these spaces following the 2015-16 installation of new LED lighting that adheres to the original color temperature of the Auditorium. In the Dress Circle lobby, the theater also installed new carpeting, created to match the original colors and design from 1889, and repaired plaster walls and columns.Visitors can see the stencil restoration during performances and other events at the Auditorium Theatre or on a historic theater tour, offered on Mondays at 10:30 a.m. and noon, Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 10:30 a.m.
Photo from 1890 displaying Louis Sullivan's original stencil designs at the Auditorium Theatre.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts