Finding Dankmar Adler in Chicago

Photo of Dankmar Adler taken sometime before his death. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dankmar Adler, that genius of acoustical engineering, was born on July 3, 1844—one hundred seventy-three years ago, today. The Chicago History Museum fêted him, but it’s well possible that if you’re not a Chicagoan, or not an architecture fan,1 you’ve never heard of him. He was an acoustic genius, the acoustics consultant for Carnegie Hall2; the synagogue he built for his father would become the birthplace of gospel. He elevated Sullivan’s lacy architectural fantasies to genius levels after himself bringing Sullivan on, but after an economic downturn, Sullivan would never let him return to the practice, damaging both men, rather irreparably.3 And, as is far too often the case, much of his work has been torn down—but, to our fortune, much of it remains, too. Here are three of those Chicago survivors.

Auditorium Theatre & Building (Roosevelt University)

The Auditorium Building, as seen from Congress across Michigan. Image by Wikipedian Victor Grigas, 30 June 2012.

By the time Roosevelt University bought the Auditorium Building for $1, it had really been through the wringer. Now, slowly but surely, it’s being restored to its original glory, or at least something close. (And it is really, really beautiful—probably the nicest building in which anyone could go to college. Just saying.) The theatre is stunning, a work of architectural and acoustical genius—it is, in fact, the reason Adler got that job as a consultant to Carnegie Hall, and is frequently studied by concert hall architects even now. I like to think that Adler and Sullivan, who built it with dreams of egalitarian glory, would be pleased to know that the building now houses a college based on social justice for all. You’ll find it at 430 S. Michigan, kitty-corner (and a couple blocks) across from the Art Institute, and you’ll likely know it even if you’ve never seen it before: it’s been in its share of movies.

A photo of the Auditorium Theatre stage, 1890. Library of Congress Historic Buildings Survey photo by JW Taylor. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville

In better days: Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1964. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by Harold Allen. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Pilgrim Baptist is one of the saddest of our sad tales of architectural despair, as well as one I’ve covered several times: it was nearly destroyed in a fire, careless roofers destroying the building that was once a synagogue (Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue) and then the birthplace, thanks to its music director, of gospel. I still hope that, some day in the future, someone will bring it back to life. It deserves to have music lift its rafters, not fire. Meanwhile, it sits,4 a despairing hulk, at 3300 S. Indiana, on the corner of Indiana and Martin Luther King Drive, just a bit away from the lake.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. 2016 photo by Jim Roberts. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I know Ebenezer Missionary Baptist5 a little better than I know some of Adler’s work: my mother performs in it often enough to be well-versed in its acoustics, still crystalline after nearly 120 years. This is a late Adler, built after his split with Sullivan, and once again originally a synagogue (Isaiah Temple, once upon a time), and it’s gospel’s birthplace, or at least its childhood home. My mother has said the building runs towards the spare (I don’t know if others would agree with her), but her focus is, and always will be, on the voice of the building, and the voice it gives her instrument, and, as was Adler’s way, Ebenezer Missionary’s voice is still clear, all these years later. You’ll find it at 4501 S. Vincennes, also in Bronzeville.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, 2015 image by John W. Iwanskifrom Flickr.

There are a few more Adler buildings throughout Chicago—some churches, a few remnants of the Adler and Sullivan stock exchange at the Art Institute—enough to give one a taste, as it were, of Adler’s rather extraordinary mind for sound waves. They’re all worth a visit, right down to the rather incredible room, lifted directly from the stock exchange and set down in the Art Institute for anyone to see, as long as they can find it. (I finally went in; naturally I recommend it to others.)

So here’s to Dankmar Adler, Jewish immigrant,  genius engineer and architect, whose works became cradles of a great new American music, and whose buildings remain, as they have always been, spaces of great and pure acoustic beauty, created by a man with an understanding of sound to be filled with music and with life.


1 And how can one be a Chicagoan and not an architecture buff?
2 Notes from both “Origins of Modern Architecture,” fall 2008, and “Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture,” spring 2009, both taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by Timothy Wittman.
3 Ibid.
4 There was a recent attempt to tear the church down; it failed to acquire a permit. I continue to hope that Pilgrim Baptist will, one day soon, come back from the edge of the grave.
5 There is a lot of information out there about Ebenezer, because it is a well-loved building. Here are a few sites:

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