Foellinger Auditorium is among the oldest buildings standing on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus.
Architect Clarence H. Blackall, Class of 1877, designed the auditorium. He specialized in theater design and takes credit for the Wilbur and Colonial Theaters in Boston, Massachusetts. He intended the auditorium to serve as the nucleus for all future campus buildings.
The planned facility would cover over 30,000 square feet and include a copper dome, smaller glass oculus, 2,500 seats between the main floor, and suspended balcony. The state legislature only approved $100,000 of the requested $200,000 to build the auditorium, so Blackall was forced to scale back his design plans. The resulting facility was built with a sheet metal dome, and originally there was no backstage.
However, the plan was modified so that the wings and upstage could be added at a later date. The building consists of a circular plan 120 feet in diameter (17,000 square feet) and is preceded by a large vestibule.
The auditorium was dedicated on November 4th and 5th in 1907 with various concerts and guest speakers. During the dedication performances, a resonant echo distracted the patrons. This led University physics professors to study the then-infant subject of acoustics; the most notable physicist was T. R. Watson.
The original location of the Alma Mater was on the south side of the auditorium. It was later moved to its current location at the entrance to the Quad at Wright and Green Streets.
Many University students, staff and faculty, public figures, orators, educators, and scientists have spoken or performed at the auditorium: John Phillip Sousa (1909), Jane Addams (1915), Robert Frost (1929), Duke Ellington (1948), Eleanor Roosevelt (1956), Ravi Shankar (1961), R. Buckminster Fuller (1974), Maya Angelou (1996), and Bill Gates (2004).
Renovations over the last century have kept the building up with changing times. The first major renovation was in 1937, which began as a seating replacement project. When the auditorium was built, it seated 2,500. The completed renovation reduced seating capacity to 1,936. Also, formal dressing rooms were built, the interior dome ceiling was lowered to assist in reducing the resonance problems, and many of the decorative elements in the house were removed.
Changes in fire codes required the University to build walls to separate the stairwells from the lobby and to add fire doors throughout the facility in 1951.
For the following 30 years, classes, public lectures, concerts, and student performances were held in the facility. The auditorium started to show its age; the south stage wall continued to bow out under the weight of the dome. Many seats were in need of replacement.
In 1983, a very generous gift from alumna Helene Foellinger, Class of 1932, allowed the University to fulfill Blackall’s original aspirations. Two years later, a rededication ceremony was held on the new semicircle forecourt to honor Ms. Foellinger’s contribution.
Foellinger Auditorium was now complete with a backstage and wings, a new wooden stage floor, and a copper dome topped with a 4½-foot pineapple. The north skylight was also removed to allow for a projection booth on the third floor. The production elements were improved by installing stage lighting and a programmable board as well as an in-house audio system.