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Iroquois Theater Fire | Eddie Foy
Life Span: 1903-1925 as the Colonial Theater from 1904-1925
Location: 24-28 Randolph (between State and Dearborn streets)
Architect: Benjamin H. Marshall
On 23 November 1903, the day the Iroquois Theater opened, a special commemorative programme provided the following description of this new house:
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.
A point worthy of remark is that the foyer of this house is not only in itself wonderfully impressive and attractive, but its relation to the auditorium is singularly harmonious and effective. All parts of the house are open from this noble, lofty room of entrance, and in turn it is intimately close to the great audience room—the architect has turned the trick of the angle to perfection. To see and be seen is the duality of advantage presented for the patrons of the Iroquois.
The colonnade of tinted marble pillars on white marble bases sentinel the sides of the foyer, and mark the landings along the graceful lines of the grand staircases rising along the wall of the outer courts. These broad, easy ascents have five landings opening upon balconies that project between the columns, the ornamental iron filagree supporting graceful candelabra used as electroliers. The wall dado, as well as the wall itself, is of white marble, while high up along the line of the second story is a succession of arched French windows ornate with graceful little balconies. The draping of these windows show rich oriental colors, and their frames are set with plate mirrors which add to the brilliancy of the decorative detail and magnify the spaciousness of the interior. Pendant from the bosses of the groined arches are Etruscan crystal bowl lamps, giving; soft light to the stairs and the plastic beauties of the ceiling. Deeply tufted settees, upholstered in fine fabrics, are in every embrasure along the walls of the foyer and highway of the stairs, giving a fine color note to the marble walls, the delicate veining of the pavonazzo pillars, and the decorations of the coves and arches. The line of these staircases leading to the dress circle and balcony is fascinating in its formation, framing the pillars of the inner court, whose Capitols sustain an elaborate cornice and a number of heavily recessed arches along the balcony promenade. In turn these lead to ornate beaming around a skylight, 20×40 feet, of delicately tinted glass in cloud forms, studded with jewels, giving the effect (from concealed lights) of stars in the changing clouded sky.
The ladies’ parlors and check rooms are at the center of the foyer to the left, and opposite are similar conveniences for gentlemen. These rooms sink under the broad staircases clear of the foyer. Below stairs on the right is a gentlemen’s smoking room fitted up with special reference to its use. The whole effect of this foyer is delightful in detail and striking in its dazzling ensemble.
There are a number of interesting innovations in the construction of this building that will never be seen by the public. There are no obstructing pillars in the body of the house to interfere with the fine lines of sight. The dress circle and balcony are carried upon cantilevers that upon an eight-foot anchorage carry an overhand of twenty-six feet, the enormous roof trusses on the rear wall holding down the cantilevers.
Glass-paneled doors, swinging between the arches on the north of the foyer, lead to the parquette; a similar entrance for the dress circle is directly above, and that for the balcony on the third floor, all parts of the house, vestibule being accessible from the grand foyer. As for exits, they are far more numerous, the entire north frontage being available for such service in case of emergency. Another large emergency exit leads across the stage to Dearborn Street from the passageway and doors behind the boxes on the south side of the auditorium proper. The directness of entrance and the availability of exits are a praiseworthy feature of this admirable planned house of amusement.
The great audience room is attractive in its arrangement, spaciousness, and decoration. It is wide, compared with its depth (ninety feet wide by seventy-one feet in depth), this shell shape giving direct lines of sight and aiding the excellence of acoustics, so that the stage entertainment can be thoroughly enjoyed by every spectator.
The aisles are wide and the distance between the rows of chairs is two inches more than ordinary. The latest and best systems of heating and ventilation have been installed, so that the pure-air problem has been successfully solved. A series of columns seven feet from the rear wall of the lower floor follow the curve of the rear row of seats supporting the unseen cantilevers, adding grace to the structure by carrying a series of attractive electroliers. The dress circle sweeps in a flat curve so high above the parquette that the top of the proscenium arch can
be seen from every seat.
There are 744 seats in the parquette, not counting the box seats, numbering 24, one of the largest lower floor capacities in the city. The dress circle has 465 seats, with two upper boxes accommodating 16; and the balcony has seatings for 475, making a total of 1,724 chairs, with plenty of good standing room on each floor.
The ceiling under the dress circle is effectively treated in a decorative way with elliptical panels, delicately defined, giving the effect of a Titanic fan spread open. The paneling of the walls is in French style and the color scheme of the house is American Beauty red, opulent in association with neutral tints of green and gold used on the plastic details. Around the house on all floors is a wainscot six feet high, of curly Hungarian ash.
Over the proscenium is a sounding board twenty feet wide, its Rococo paneling giving the key to all the ornamentation about the frame of the stage, involving the order of its proscenium boxes. The line of the elliptical proscenium arch is ornate with wreath of laurel leaves; the opening is forty-one feet wide and thirty-six feet high. The orchestra pit is spacious, with ample room for forty instrumentalists. The projection in front of the footlights is convexed and decorated in conformity with the prevailing style of the house.
In the rear of the boxes there is ample space, which will allow plenty of room for comfortably disposing of wraps, bonnets, hats, and such other wearing apparel as patrons may desire to discard before entering the boxes.
The plan of the decorations in the Iroquois is one full of variety in design and color and more sumptuous than anything hitherto attempted in a Chicago theatre.
The walls of the vestibule are of white marble, with a subtle treatment of antique gold in the ceiling, leaving the total effect very rich yet quiet.
As you enter the foyer, the effect is in rich contrast to the vestibule. The walls are of white marble, with pavonazzo columns. Around the mirror panels on both sides of the flanking stairways is a welcome velvety red. The draperies and furnishings in a deeper tone of this same color are important notes of the decorative scheme.
Proscenium and Boxes.
The foyer ceilings and domes in the richest colors of green and rose tints of the French Renaissance style, liberally elaborated with gold, add brilliancy and crispness to the general tone of this beautiful harmony.
The color scheme of the auditorium is as beautiful as it is appropriate. The colors are quiet and neutral greens on the ceilings and a rich red on walls and wdth gold in the boxes and draperies.
The colors of the proscenium arch and entablatures of boxes are soft green and silver gray. All constructional parts have the color of French statuary bronze and verdigris, elaborated with ivory tones.
The auditorium ceiling is a well blended sky effect done in soft greens, cerulean blues, and mauves, with clouds in grays and pearl tints.
All the coves are finished in Sienna. It will be observed that the facings of the boxes, dress circle, and balcony are in keeping with the colorings in the great sounding board over the proscenium arch.
This color scheme, with the deep rich red of the walls back of the seats in tone with the warm tones of the pavonazzo marble, combine to make this interior a triumph of elegance in decoration.
The designing and decorating of the Iroquois Theatre throughout is the work of the W. P. Nelson Company, an old-established Chicago firm, who also did Powers’ Theatre, this city, the New Amsterdam Theatre of New York City, which has attracted much attention on account of its striking originality of design and coloring, and the new Nixoii Theatre in Pittsburg, Pa., now nearing completion.
Mr. St. John Lewis has provided two exquisitely painted curtains, unique in their significance. The asbestos, or fireproof curtain, shows a summer scene on the Mohawk River, made from a sketch by the artist himself, from which, however, he has eliminated every semblance of modern civilization, with the view of illustrating the historic valley as it might have appeared 150 years ago, when its banks were peopled with the Iroquois Indians only. The picture is in the artist’s best style, and was suggested by the following verse by Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney:
Ye say their cone-like cabins
That clustered o’er the vale
Have disappeared as withered leaves
Before the autumn gale ;
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore ;
Your ever-rolling rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.
The act drop is a study rich and mellow in autumnal tints. It is a landscape also, and treated in Mr. Lewis’ best style, intended to illustrate the following lines by Greer:
October, tinting the summer skies,
Had ranged on a scaffold of mist
His gold, and crimson, and purple dyes.
And russet and amethyst.
The plush curtain, which is of rich velvet of a beautiful red to harmonize with the color of the auditorium, is ornamented with a portrait of Sagoyawata, or Red Jacket, a chief of the Senecas, and later the most celebrated chief in all the tribes in that confederacy of Indians known as the Six Nations, or Iroquois, after which the theatre is named. This curtain was made and ornamented by Marshall Field & Co., who also furnish the draperies.
The stage of the Iroquois Theatre is spacious, modern, and perfectly appointed, with a depth of fifty-three feet and a width of 110 feet. The rigging loft is seventy-six feet from the stage floor and is believed to be the best constructed ever placed in a theatre. The full width of the stage corresponding with the proscenium opening is entirely clear underneath, and of sufficient depth to give working space for the most elaborate and pretentious of stage productions of every description. There are two fly galleries on either side of the stage, all of steel construction, and a steel paint bridge on the rear wall unites these upper galleries.
There are thirty-six dressing rooms, all large and comfortably furnished, and most of these above and on the south side of the stage. They are readily reached by broad, easy stairs, and, wonder of wonders, have an elevator that works at every performance instead of merely lifting baggage at the beginning and conclusion of an engagement. The supernumcranes have large rooms in a separate part of the basement.
Adequate accommodation for the performers is unusual, but Mr. Davis, who inaugurated drastic reform in dressing-rooms in the building of the Haymarket, has elaborated on his original ideas for comfort in the Iroquois
Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1924
The Colonial theater, which closed its doors for the last time last night on a departing crowd of theatergoers. The furnishings will be sold tomorrow and on May 26 wreckers will begin the work of demolishing it to make way for the new United Masonic temple. It was the scene of the disastrous fire of 1903, when it was named the Iroquois.
The Cotonial theater. Chicago’s second playhouse in point of seating in capacity, passed into history last night. With the ringing down of the final curtain on last night’s performance, the famous old show house in which 575 persons lost their lives in the Iroquois fire disaster of 1903, closed Its doors to the theatergoing public forever.
They will be swung open again for a few hours tomorrow while the properties, seats, motor equipment, and other fixtures will be sold at public auction. Then the old structure on the rialto be torn down to make way for the erection of a new nineteen story United Masonic temple. Work of tearing down the building will be started on May 26.
While the Colonial was only vears old—a youthful age as theaters go—it was looked upon ns one of the oldest in Chicago’s amusement world. As the Iroquois theater, then thle last word in playhouse construction, its doors were first opened to the public on Nov. 23, 1902. It was a little over a month later—on Dec. 30, 1903—a performance that started on the stage and bellowed out under the proscenium, taking its terrible toll of men, women, and children. Most of them were trampled to death in the rush for exits.
The theater was rebuilt and reopened as the Colonial. Since then it has been known os the home of musical comedy, and in later years of the Ziegfeld Follies and the Music Box review. Many memorable musical plays made record runs there. Among them were “The Merry Widow ” and ” The Pink Lady.”
Neither Harry J. Powers, owner of the playhouse, nor his son, Harry Jr., was present at last night’s performance. Rollo Timponi, manager, who has followed the fortunes of the Powers family since he graduated as an usher twenty years ago.
A copy of the 56 page December 21, 1903 Iroquois Theatre Programme is available by clicking on the picture below.
A 1910 programme from the Colonial Theatre, which the Iroquois was renamed a year after the fire.
On December 20, 1903 Iroquois Theater was the scene of a deadly fire that killed over 500 people and changed the way fire codes were maintained in theaters around the world.