Location: Google Books Date: 1903
On November 23, 1903 Chicago’s new Iroquois Theater opened. Six weeks later it would be the site of the deadliest fire in Chicago history killing 602 people – mostly women and children. But, opening day of the majestic theater was grand! Just in time to entertain the Loop’s weary holiday shoppers! To commemorate the event, a souvenir program was published and included many details of the theater’s beautiful entrance.
The latest and most noticeable achievements in theatrical construction, not reckoning the cost to secure the finest results, are significant in the recherche New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, the finest concrete example of L’ Art Nouvean in the world: the beautiful Nixon Theatre, now approaching completion in Pittsburg, and last but not least, the Iroquois in Chicago, the finest and most complete of its many modern houses devoted to the drama.
The desirable site chosen for the Iroquois is close to that associated with the very beginning of things theatrical in this municipality nearly sixty years ago. It is located within ” The Loop,” is more readily accessible from traction and railway lines than any other Chicago theatre, and has a frontage on three thoroughfares, with many avenues for exit. The practical part of its promotion as an elegant edifice as well as a perfect theatre show the result of skill added to good judgment in unstinted financial outlay, with a determination to secure the best as befitting such an important artistic adventure. Every penny of the large expenditure represented in the Iroquois was made in the theatrical business. Mr. Will J. Davis and Mr. Harry J. Powers, as the result of ripe experience, understood exactly what was needed. The judicious character of their investment is unquestionable and the artistic addition to the city most advantageous. Associated with the Chicago managers are Messrs. Klaw and Erlanger of New York, and Messrs. Nixon and Zimmerman of Philadelphia, both firms being large producers as well.
The George A. Fuller Company is second to none in handling building enterprises of magnitude, and in carrying them to completion in spite of all obstacles that the uncertain temper of the times may impose. It may be recalled that this corporation carried the Illinois Theatre to completion under conditions that seemed prohibitive, and has been equally successful in completing the Iroquois at a time when other builders have been seriously delayed or entirely abandoned constructions, discouraged by the attitude of labor and contract conditions.
Mr. Benjamin H. Marshall, the architect, has shown admirable capability as a modern theatre builder, and in this instance has again given Chicago its most beautiful temple of the drama. The Illinois Theatre was the first monumental structure of the kind in Chicago, and the Iroquois is a surpassing second, as the entire building is devoted to theatrical purposes.
The Iroquois presents the most imposing and attractive facade to be seen in this city of modern structures, and will impress even the most superficial observer by its beauty and grandeur. The style, architecturally, is French renaissance, which has a strong suggestion of the classic. This mingling of the heroic and lighter lines is artistically adroit, and the result very satisfactory. The Randolph Street front is of Bedford stone deeply recessed (sixty feet wide and eighty feet high), the admirable proportion and architectural treatment making it appear larger than it really is. The central feature is a deep French coved arch thirty-five feet in width and fifty-two feet high, flanked on either side by stone columns four feet in diameter and thirty-eight feet high, weighing thirty-six tons each. Next to these in correct architectural spacing is an engaged pilaster four feet wide that returns back of the columns, acting in double function. The front view gives the impress of double free columns on either side of the arch, adding grace and strength to the uplift of the edifice. These columns and pilasters rest upon a mammoth pedestal of St. Cloud granite sixteen feet square. The width of these bases will serve as bulletins of attractions, for which a space five feet square is recessed and framed in carved leaves of laurel, the top center being a rich cartouche. The columns and pilasters are surmounted by a cornice nine feet high, running across the entire front from pilaster to pilaster, breaking back to the face of the arch at the top of either column. These returns are sustained by elaborately carved massive brackets of French pattern. The upward continuation of the cornice forms a pediment or gable, the apex of which is seventy-five feet above the pavement. Above its crown moulding is a parapet. Surmounting the center as a terminal is a monolith of stone twelve feet wide and fifteen feet high. The massive character of the masonry will be appreciated when it is stated that this upper wall is fourteen feet thick.
The ornamentation of the pediment is emblematic, showing the semi-recumbent figure of a woman heroic in size, representing Tragedy, and the figure of a jester, typifying Comedy. They support a richly carved cartouche as the central ornament.
The sculptors of this large group are Beil and Manch, and the carver, Joseph Dux. The figures are cut out of the solid stone projection, the relief being 3 1/2 feet from the face of the pediment. The size of these sculptures may be judged by the fact that the ornamental head forming the keystone of the arch ten feet below them is 3 1/2 x 4 feet.
Springing up within the arched entrance are a pair of stone pilasters thirty-four feet high, supporting a cornice spanning the arch at the beginning of the curve. The upper members of this gable are cut out as a broken pediment, allowing space for the sculptured bust of a noble Iroquois that Mr. Davis selected as typical from his large library Americana. Back of this arch is an elaborate screen of ornamental iron work (in which the Winslow Brothers have fairly outdone the Germans in their handicraft). This screen is set with heavy plate and jewel glass, giving light and airiness to the inner lobby and outer front. Five pairs of wide mahogany doors with glass panels give entrance to a vestibule 20×40 feet, with an eighteen-foot ceiling beamed and paneled with marble. This is elliptical in shape, allowing room for ticket and other offices on either side, their windows being an attractive feature of the otherwise plain solid construction. At the east end ornamental iron stairs lead to the business offices of the house and to the third floor above, the manager’s private office. A second series of swinging doors admit to a foyer truly palatial (sixty feet wide and eighty feet long), with a colonnade of pavonazzo pillars carrying the ceiling upon groined arches sixty feet above the tessellated floor. It is-by far the most majestic interior in this city or in this country, rivaling many vistas to be seen in the Congressional Library in Washington. In the dignity of its decorative disposition it suggests some kinship with the latter noble structure: but its lines are lighter, its treatment not so severely studied, while its originality is worthy of the highest praise.
For more on The Iroquois Theater Disaster, please see The Chicago History Journal.