Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fisher Theatre - Detroit, MI

While the Fisher Theatre doesn't have quite the rich history of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, it is an impressive place with a character all its own.

The theatre is housed within the Fisher Building.  Built in 1928 by the Fisher family with the proceeds from the sale of Fisher Body to General Motors, the Fisher Building stands 444 feet above the New Center neighborhood.  The Fisher was built across Grand Avenue from the former GM headquarters building (now a state office building known as the Cadillac Palace) and the two buildings anchor the neighborhood built to serve as a "new center" to the city of Detroit - one that would link the downtown offices with the outlying factories springing up all along Detroit's edges.  (In fact, Grand Avenue was originally conceived as a ring road to mark the edge of Detroit, but by the 1920's Detroit was outgrowing that idea.)  Both buildings were designed by Albert Kahn, but in very different styles: the Cadillac Palace is textbook Neoclassical while the Fisher is Art Deco at its peak.  

Sunset along Grand Avenue with the Fisher Building on the right and the Cadillac Palace on the left.

The 30 story Fisher Building is often described as "Detroit's largest art object."  The limestone, granite and marble exterior soars skyward in a series of setbacks rising to the "Golden Tower" from which WJR emanates.  (When the building was completed in 1928, the tower was actually gilt; but the gold leaf was removed during WWII when it was feared that it would serve as a beacon and attract air raids.  Today, the golden effect is created by shining amber light onto iridescent green Pewabic tiles on the roof.)  The building was conceived as part of a complex of three structures: another 30 story twin with a 60 story tower between them; the onset of the Great Depression (plus the enormous sums the Fishers spent building and decorating the single building) meant that only one building was completed.

An artist's rendering from a pamphlet the Fishers distributed to celebrate the building's opening in 1928.

Looking up toward the "golden tower" from 2nd Avenue

The interior public spaces are as magnificent as the exterior.  An 'L' shaped shopping arcade with a 3 story barrel vault welcomes visitors.  Huge pendant chandeliers in several styles hang from the top of the vault and illuminate the ceiling decoration by Geza Maroti.  Even the elevator doors  and the elevator cabs themselves are richly decorated.  The building's upper floors are filled with all manner of offices and the studios for several radio stations (the Consulate General of Lebanon has offices in the Fisher Building), but the lower floors are home to many retail shops and restaurants.  I ate a couple of meals in the building's lobby and was a great patron of the coffee shop directly across the arcade from the theatre's entrance!

 View along the long leg of the arcade from the second floor.

A detail from the ceiling - no two of the maidens painted throughout the arcade are the same.

The Fisher Theatre is also part of the building's original equipment.  It opened as a vaudeville and movie palace with Mayan-Revival decor.  The interior was over the top and featured live banana trees, a goldfish pond and free-flying macaws that patrons were invited to feed.  After the Great Depression, the theatre switched to an all movie format.  In 1961, the theatre was acquired by the Nederlanders and completely remodeled.  Out went the macaws and Central American decor, replaced with mid-century marble and wood paneling.  While many in our company felt that the result was dated and tacky, I really enjoyed the remodel.  Ten years ago, I probably would have been among those eschewing the redesigned interior, but the 1961 look is quickly becoming classic now.  The auditorium is awash in gold with space-age accents and the lobby still has much of the early sixties modern furniture.  I hope the Nederlanders continue to maintain the place and don't change it again.

The auditorium as it looked on opening night in November of 1928.

The theatre's dedicated entrance on 2nd Avenue.

The Fisher Theatre's doors in the lobby of the Fisher Building (with the "Body by Fisher" logo)

The auditorium as seen from the balcony.
When the theatre was remodeled, the capacity was reduced from more than 3,000 seats to less than 2,100.

The auditorium as seen from the stage.
While the auditorium was modernized in the 1961 renovation, the stage house was not.  It remains quite small with a rickety elevator serving the 5 floors of dressing rooms.  It's so small, in fact, that some of our props and costumes actually were stored in the auditorium - an adventurous patron could have gotten a sneak peak!

One of the chandeliers from the balcony level - doesn't it just scream "atomic age"?

I thoroughly enjoyed the contrast of the Fisher Building and the theatre it contained.  Both spoke volumes about the time and place in which they were created.  The Fisher brothers built the place with the new wealth of the automotive industry in the age of mechanization.  The Nederlanders updated the theatre with more automotive dollars; this time from the tickets of those building Thunderbirds on the still awesome assembly lines.  Today, both the theatre and the building remain gems amidst the down-at-the-heels city blocks that surround them as the power of Michigan's automotive industry wanes.  But, like all of Detroit, there's a lot of history and beauty awaiting those who explore.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Auditorium Theatre - Chicago, IL

Spamalot has given me occasion to be in some absolutely beautiful theatres all across North America.  Several of those theatres combine aesthetic beauty with a powerful sense of history.  None of those theatres, however, have both of those elements in anything near the combination that the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago does.

The Auditorium is in Chicago's South Loop Neighborhood.  It's well south of the city's theatre district, but borders Grant Park (overlooking Buckingham Fountain), Michigan Avenue and the Lakeshore.  Today, the Auditorium Building is home to the majority of classes for Roosevelt University (motto: "Dedicated to the enlightenment of the human spirit.") and that would probably please the building's architects and planners as it was built as a great social experiment.  The Chicago Auditorium Association was chartered in 1886 by a Chicago businessman, Ferdinand Peck.  The Peck family was made wealthy in the real estate business and Ferdinand was deeply civic minded.  Shortly after the Haymarket Riots, he founded the Auditorium Society with the twin goals of building a great opera house for Chicago and making that magnificent building accessible to all the people of the city.  He felt that opening the doors to the whole of the city would help calm the tensions - immigrants would be civilized by art and comforted by seeing productions of great works in their native languages.  To that end, Peck engaged Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan to build the Auditorium Building.

Peck tasked Adler and Sullivan with creating an edifice with a world class opera and symphony hall as well as a hotel and office building.  The office building and hotel were to subsidize the auditorium and allow the building's managers to keep ticket prices affordable to the entire citizenry.  To that end, the Auditorium Building was designed with a 400 room hotel and 136 office suites.  When it opened in 1889, the building was the tallest in Chicago (at 18 stories) and the most massive in the world.

The Auditorium Building as seen from the west on Congress Parkway

The building is an engineering, architectural and acoustic marvel.  The Auditorium Building sits atop 100 feet of soft blue clay.  To allow for the construction of such a massive building, Adler, the building's engineer, designed a raft foundation composed of criss-crossed railroad ties, steel rails, concrete and pitch which distributes the weight of the building across the entire footprint of the building, rather than just the footprint of the walls.  Sullivan, the building's architect, set out to create the first entirely American building.  He rejected the then popular Beaux Arts style and attempted to create a new style for a city remaking itself after the Great Chicago Fire.  Sullivan would become the "father of modernism", the creator of the modern skyscraper and the founder of the "Chicago School of Architecture".  The Auditorium Building would be Sullivan's first major statement in a career of distinction.

Sullivan designed the building to echo the nearby Marshall Field Warehouse and to build upon that building's greatness.  The massive masonry walls of the Auditorium Building rise to 10 stories and then are crowned with a tower of an additional 8 stories.  Though Sullivan would later become a pioneer in the use of the steel framing that allowed for the creation of skyscrapers, the Auditorium's masonry walls are the load-bearing portion of the building.  The weight of 18 stories of granite have actually caused the foundation to settle nearly 3 feet.  The floors in the lobby slant noticeably downward toward the edges of the building, necessitating the installation of stairs up to street level.

The Auditorium was the original home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Civic Opera.  While both institutions have since found other homes, the Auditorium Theatre remains a testament to both of its designers and the visionary man responsible for it's founding.

The front doors of the Auditorium Theatre.
Congress Parkway was widened after the building opened and a pedway was carved from what would have been the building's interior.  The arches on the left originally served as the building's front doors, now the columns on the right welcome theatre-goers.

The view from the third balcony.
Even at 70 feet from the stage, the acoustics are brilliant.  I could very clearly hear the stagehands speaking at a normal level as they went about the business of setting for the show.  Adler's buildings are noted for their amazing acoustics, but even he could not explain why.

The view from the second balcony including the magnificent gilded arches that support the ceiling and the "Story of Life" mural above the proscenium.

Above the proscenium is a mural entitled: "The Story of Life".  It begins on House Right with the angels welcoming a new soul at birth, continues to the apex of the proscenium arch with the height of achievement and then ends on House Left with the Angel welcoming the soul to its rest.  The figures are life-sized and it is rumored that they stood above the stage on scaffoldings so the artists could paint from live models.

On either side of the auditorium are two murals along the same lines:

On House Right: Spring Song

And on House Left: Autumn Revery

Three massive gilded arches adorn and support the ceiling of the Auditorium.
The arches served many purposes, they not only were structural elements and decorative, they also contained the ductwork for the air conditioning and allowed for the electric light (making the Auditorium the first entirely air conditioned and electrically illuminated theatre in the world).  To change the light bulbs, a technician crawls through the ceiling drawing the burnt out bulb up and dropping the newly installed bulb back down through a hole in the plaster.  The arches are actually flush to the ceiling on the on-stage side and open up and out as they move away from the stage; meaning they also serve to help amplify the sound as it travels toward the back of the auditorium.

The view from the stage of all 4,300 seats on four levels.  The two uppermost balconies can actually be shuttered off by means of large doors that come down from the ceiling.

The seats in the 3rd Balcony.
The last of row of seats is 72' feet from the stage.  The theatre's resident historian, Joe, gave us a tour between shows on Saturday and theorized that the upper balconies were once used as "colored balconies" and that the shutters were closed during pre-show seating and only opened when the show was ready to begin.

Sullivan's arch motif is evident throughout the building.  The lobby is full of arches as are the backs of the orchestra level and the first balcony.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a draftsman for the Sullivan and Adler firm (he would later be fired for taking commissions to build homes in Oak Park without Sullivan's approval).  It is believed that these stencils were drafted by the young Lloyd Wright.

At the back of the orchestra level are two fireplaces flanked by long benches.  In keeping with the public-mindedness of the design of the entire building, these spaces were created with the idea that people would gather to discuss the lecture, ballet or opera they had just shared.

While the hotel concern failed within ten years of its opening and the office suites failed to subsidize the arts within the auditorium, the theatre remains a landmark to an age with high-minded civic goals.  The Civic Opera and the Symphony have both moved uptown, but Roosevelt University has revitalized and restored this magnificent theatre.  It was an absolute privilege to play in this national landmark.  To be a small part of the history that began when the Republican National Party nominated Benjamin Harrison for the Presidency from the, only partially completed, stage in 1889 was something special.  I truly felt honored to have shared in the experience of this amazing building.