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The largest auditorium In the world was to be built in Chicago conceived by actor and impresario Steele MacKaye. Mr. MacKaye was known for his famous stage technology improvements to New York’s Madison Square Garden (1879) which included the “double stage”, an elevator the size of the full stage that was raised and lowered by counter-weights and reduced scene changes to one or two minutes from five or more.
This “super theater” was called the Spectatorium. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1893 deprived the project of necessary funds. The project was left incomplete. It was located behind the Iowa State Building exhibit. After the Chicago Fire cyclorama was dismantled, the rotunda building became MacKay’s home for a brief time. A smaller building named the Scenitorium opened 5 February 1894. MacKaye passed away a few weeks later.
From an article published in San Francisco Call, 27 February 1894:
The MacKaye Scenitorium has failed and will go into the hands, of a receiver. It has not paid expenses; and with the death of its originator it passes out of existence. George M. Pullman, who Is said to have lost $50.000 in the Spectatorium, MacKaye’s big World’s Fair scheme, was one of the backers of the Scenltorium.
The first production was to have been The World Finder, for which Antonin Dvorák eventually composed his New World Symphony. . Instead, the symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and premiered on December 16, 1893, at Carnegie Hall.
Here is how the Chicago Herald, on 25 September 1892 described it:
After months of preliminary work the initiatory steps for the construction of the biggest auditorium of the world were taken yesterday. A building permit was issued to the Columbus Celebration Company to erect a “Spectatorium” at numbers 1 to 27 on Fifty-sixth street. The structure is to be six stories in height, 480 by 240 feet in dimensions and of frame and staff construction. This latter point has been one of much contention between the promoters of the scheme and the city authorities, .on account of the requisite conformity with the fire ordinances. William LeBaron Jenney & W. B. Mundie are the architects of the huge building, the cost of which in the permit Is given at $200,000. This, however, la for the mere shell, the total cost of construction, aside from furnishings and decorations, being about $350,000. The preliminaries were not definitely settled until yesterday at noon, and the accompanying illustration will be to the general public the first intimation of the appearance of the exterior of the huge structure. The data concerning the real estate deal involved in this transaction are familiar. Among the promoters, aside from Steele Mackaye, are such men as George M. Pullman. Lyman J. Gage, Murry Nelson, Benjamin Butterworth. Andrew McNally, Franklin H. Head, Ferdinand W. Peck and other well-known citizens. Mr. Steele MacKaye himself says the undertaking is the realization of full twenty years of fond dreams and much study In the realm of the spectacular.
The building will be in the Spanish Renaissance style of architecture, and will exhibit a more gorgeous effect and at the same time cover more ground than any other building heretofore planned or erected in connection with the Columbian Exposition outside of the fairgrounds. The front will extend over 480 feet and the depth will average 311 feet, the height will be about 100 feet. The large dome in the center will be surmounted by a statue of Fame. Tbe seating capacity of the auditorium will be 9,200, and the entrances and exits will be ample for twice that number in order to empty the house ln about half the time required to leave an ordinary theater. The stage will have a proscenium opening of 150 feet, with proportionate depth. The immense stage is so arranged that it can furnish real water to the depth of four feet over its entire surface. The scenery will be run on wheels on railroad Iron under the water, and will be controlled, each piece separately, by electric motors from the prompter’s desk. Thus the prompter will only have to push a button and the motor will do the work of 250 men, absolutely preventing any mistakes in scene-shifting. The building, as has been said, will cost upward of $350,000 when ready for the machinery. The furniture, scenes and machinery will cost probably as much more.
The gentlemen constituting the spectatorium company will furnish ample means, and are determined to make this enterprise one of the most enjoyable features of the fair. They claim it will be a more pleasing and more talked of novelty than the Eiffel Tower. The character of the performances to be given are promised to equal Wagner’s most extraordinary dreams of all that a great dramatic-musical performance should be. The greatest orchestral music, especially written by the best composers, solos and choiuses by eminent artists, all Illustrated by brilliant spectacular and. realistic pantomimes, will be presented. The story of the piece to be given will be the life of Columbus and the discovery of America. Ships of the actual size and appearance used by Columbus will be fully manned by sailors in exact reproduction of the characters of those times. The capture of Granada and the procession of Columbus and Isabella to the Alhambra as well as the surrender of Boabdil, last of the Moorish kings, will be especially grand and on an immense scale. The scenery costumes and music will be elaborate and picturesque, and the promoters claim fortius grand production that it will be the greatest of the kind ever attempted.
The Unfinished Spectatorium
Visible behind the Iowa State Building
Iowa State Building in Foreground
Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1893
The Spectatorium, the large pile of steel and wood at the north end of the World’s Fair grounds, which was to have housed the grandest theatrical representations in the world, is being torn down to be sold as scrap iron. The Spectatorium, as yet incomplete, cost $550,000. It was sold for $2,250. The project was that of Steele Mackaye. He broached it first last year to leading capitalists of Chicago and it met with favor. The plan was to build a structure sufficiently large to give a representation of the discovery of Amuerica on a scale larger than was ever attempted. Mackayc invented new methods of lighting which promised to revolutionize the methods of stage illumination. The life of the production was to have been a great chorus arranged on the principle of the old Greek chorus. The organization of the company proceeded well. Work was begun, hundreds of men employed, and actors and actresses contracted with and put on rehearsal. The Spectatorium failed and went into the hands of a receiver June 1. Some of the Chicagoans who held at $1,000 each were:
George Pullman, fifty shares; Murry Nolson. E. L. Browster, Edson Keith, John Cudahy, L. J. Gago, C. J. and F. W. Peck, H. E. Bucklene ten shares each. Others interested from two to five shares each were F. H. Head. C. H. Deare, Arthur Dixon, J. J. Mitchell, E. H. Phelps, F. G. Logan, N. B. Ream David Henderson, A. C. McClurg, Andrew McNally; Ben Butterworth, and F. E. Studebaker.
Steele Mackaye blamed the failure on bad weather, labor troubles, a tight money market, and an article declaring the project a failure, which prevented the disposition of the company’s bonds. Willianm Mavor, the contractor, June 13 in the Circuit Court charged fraud against the incorporators—Steele Mackaye, Ben Buttorworth, Powell Crosley, Sidney C. White Jr., and Howard O. Edmunds. Then Building Commissioner Toolen declared July 18 the Spectatoriumu must be torn down, that it was dangerous. The last act in its troubled history was that the Chicago Title and Trust company, receivers for the company, made a report Sept. 21 to the Circuit Court showing liabilities of $400,000. and as assets $54,000 in unpaid subscriptions to bonds and tho unfinished building. The capitalization of the company is given at $2,000,000, said to be fully paid up by the sale of rights to use patents issued to Steele Mackaye. First mortgage bonds to the extent of $800,000 were issued, $553,000 of them being subscribed for. Contracts were made to $309,275, on which $59,000 was paid. Tho First National Bank holds a note for $15,000 against the company. The receiver reports he was unable to place $100,000 insurance on the building as provided by the order of the court; that the companies that formerly had written polices on the building had canceled them; that contracts with 334 chorus girls had not been settled and that with the Seidl Orchestra only partly squared up; that the building is in danger from fire; nnd the receiver asks the court for leave to sell the building and dispose of the option oil on the real estate. So the building was ordered sold and removed. Two hundred men are at work and they will clear it all in thirty days. There are in the structure 1,200 tons of iron. It will cost $15,000 to tear down the building and remove it. The lumber will be used for sidewalks and for the building of small cottages for working people.
From Picturesque World’s Fair, An Elaborate Collection of Colored Views
PUBLISHED WITH THE ENDORSEMENT AND APPROVAL OF George R. Davis
BIRD’S-EYE VIEW FROM THE SPECTATORIUM.—Looking southward from the roof of the Spectatorium—that great unfinished structure which represented the defeated ambition of Steele Mackay, and which stood just outside the Exposition grounds on the north—splendid bird’s-eye view of the White City was obtained. The view took in not only the majority of the buildings, but a considerable portion of the lake shore, with its long stretch of white beach, its steamboat piers and harbor. You looked down upon the tracks of the Intramural Elevated Railroad, which circled the grounds, and beyond, over the tops of a natural grove of trees, to a panoramic scene of broad avenues, towers and domes, white colonades that gleamed like marble in the sunlight, and a variety of architectural decorations that almost took the breath away with their startling suggestion on ancient Rome or Athens. Many of the prettiest of the state and foreign buildings appeared in the foreground, and having them all grouped under the eye at once, it was easy to compare their relative merits and decide which was the most credible from an artistic standpoint. A section of the Art Gallery stood out in plain view at the end of one of the avenues; the tower of the Illinois Building loomed up on the right, while in the center was the dome of the Government Building, with the great roof of the Manufactures Building beyond, in the distance you saw the domes of the Administration and Horticulture Buildings. As a whole, the picture presented from the roof of the Spectatorium was grand and exceedingly interesting.