Downtown Chicago pulsated with live entertainment in the ‘20s. Skyscrapers eventually replaced the entertainment venues, and the historic theaters fell into disrepair or were abandoned. To preserve the Windy City’s theatrical tradition, the mayor transformed the North Loop area into the Chicago Theatre District.

Sparkling lights now illuminate the neighborhood, which is only a short walk from the Chicago River and Michigan Avenue. At the corner of Dearborn and Randolph, a limestone, 170,000-sq-ft theatrical complex spans a city block, and a sparkling red fiber optic and neon marquee marks the entrance to the new Goodman Theatre.

In November 1925, the Goodman raised its curtain on its first play. For the next 75 years, the theater staged productions in a facility owned by the Chicago Art Institute. As the years wore on, the artistic staff felt like they were producing 20th century theater in a 19th century building. The theater didn’t have any fly space above the stage, the crew had to transport its sets on an elevator, and the heating and cooling systems were so noisy that they had to be turned off during a performance. The auditorium also had poor acoustics, and some office personnel were working out of former storage closets.

“Because of the wiring and the way it was constructed, we outlived the space,” says Robert Campbell, a former actor and technician who is now working in the administrative offices at the Goodman. “We were looking for a new space and we decided that we wanted to be more central in the Loop.”

The Goodman worked with a theater design firm to assess the situation, and the consultants recommended two options: refurbish the existing facility or build a new theater. At that time, the city was working on reviving Chicago’s North Loop, and a space opened up a few miles away from the theater’s existing location. In 1998, the construction team broke ground, and seven months later the crew began construction (View a construction photo slideshow).

Two years and $46 million later, the 170,000-sq-ft Goodman Theatre opened its doors to the public. The complex houses two principal theaters—the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre (Albert) and the Owen Bruner Goodman Theater (Owen)—and the four-story, 60,000-sq-ft Goodman Theatre Center of Chicago, which will feature restaurant, retail, and office space.

“It’s like night and day,” says Lesa Rosenthal, project manager for James McHugh Construction Co., the general contractor on the project. “They were a tenant in the old building so they had a little space here and a little space there. The new Goodman Theatre complex brings all of their operations into one location.”

Maron Electric Co., a Chicago-based electrical contracting firm, served as the prime electrical contractor on the project. The company was not only responsible for wiring the theatrical complex, but also installing the sound, lighting, and theater systems. To create good acoustics, the architects incorporated an elliptical feel to interior design. Walking through the front door of the Goodman, theater patrons are greeted by an elliptical atrium lobby, a swirling staircase, and the doors to the Albert Theatre, which can seat 850 patrons. Once inside, the purple velour seats and oak-paneled box seats convey the style of a ‘20s theater. Instead, the Albert Theatre was constructed only a few years ago on the site of the landmark Garrick and Wood theaters, which were demolished during the construction project (Read about the history of the Goodman in an interactive timeline.

The smaller stage in the complex, the modern 400-seat Owner Theatre, is a blend of both new construction and renovation. Crews carefully preserved portions of the Harris and Selwyn theaters, which were designated historic landmarks by the city of Chicago. The former Harris Theatre became the lobby of the new Goodman Theatre with the upper level reserved for administrative and rehearsal spaces and the lower level for the costume shop and star dressing rooms. To incorporate the original terra cotta-style façade onto the new building, the construction team gutted the existing theater, left the façade attached to the 80-year-old structural steel frame, and braced it from behind. “As they took the shell of the building away, they had to bring in additional beams and struts to support the structure,” Rosenthal says.

The Goodman Theatre was constructed in the heart of the Windy City’s revived theater district. While it was an ideal location for theatergoers, the site of the new building presented many design challenges. The theatrical complex was constructed 25 ft from the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) elevated train tunnel and 27 ft above a subway tunnel. The engineers used the strength of steel and the absorbency of rubber to absorb the vibrations from the underground subway. The crew layered thin sheets of steel encased in rubber on top of the original foundation and then poured a second foundation for extra stability.

“When you were standing in here, it was really kind of deafening,” says Campbell. “While it was under construction, the man who was responsible for constructing this space put his hand on the back wall and actually broke a smile, which he never did. He was very happy that the vibration and the sound was muted.”

To soundproof the building, the engineers relied on earthquake technology by using a vibration isolated grade beam system. Each of the two stages were surrounded by a 2-in. pocket of air called an acoustic isolation joint. Maron Electrical Co. had to discover creative ways to run the conduit without crossing the joints. The team constructed two sets of walls and built the inside box on rubber pads to isolate it from the rest of the building.

“It’s a wooden structure inside the existing structure, which is floating on rubber pads,” Rosenthal says. “It’s commonly described as a box within a box.”

During the design phase, the engineers had to build a complex that would not only isolate the sound, but also not exceed the weight requirements put forth by the Chicago Transit Authority. With a subway speeding below the complex, the new structure had to be built out of wood columns rather than steel. The construction team gutted the building and then excavated it down to the CTA structure. Since the original theater was built in the ‘20s, the team had to rely on as-built drawings from the CTA and theater renovation drawings from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

“We knew that we were going to have to verify the CTA drawings on the north side, but on the south side, nothing was where it was expected to be,” Rosenthal says. “The engineer had to do some quick redesign to keep everything going.”

Along with discovering a few surprises during the construction phase, the team had to coordinate the different trades and manage the project delivery. Because the project was in the heart of downtown Chicago, the team had nowhere to store its materials on the property.

“We built on every inch of the site,” Rosenthal says. “They were forced to make more deliveries than what they would normally, and there was no room for anyone to put trailers.”

Despite all of the architectural, design, and project management challenges, the theater was completed on time and within budget. Three years after the theater opened, the Goodman was recognized as one of the best regional theaters in the United States by Time magazine. Several of the productions at the Goodman have also gone on to tour in New York and other cities across the country.

Sidebar: Fast Facts About the Goodman Theatre

  • The Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, which anchors the south side of the complex, features 856 seats with 412 main floor seats, 396 mezzanine seats, and three levels of 48 box seats.

  • The Owen Bruner Goodman Theatre was built to resemble the Cottesloe Theatre and the Royal National Theatre in London. It features three levels of courtyard seating and can seat 335 to 467, depending on the configuration of the stage.

  • More than 1,700 lineal ft of acoustic isolation joint was created to soundproof the Goodman Theatre. The Owen and the Albert Theatres float on 6-in. thick steel-reinforced rubber pads, which range in size from 13.75 in. to 24 in. wide.

  • The red marquee outside the Goodman Theatre is 73 ft tall and features 4 ft tall stainless steel letters that spell out “Goodman.” Each letter includes both red neon lights and fiber optic lights, which can change hues and patterns (Campbell is pictured with the sign above).

  • The entranceway leads into a lobby that has a height of 6,700 sq ft. Because the construction team couldn’t add windows to the front of the historic façade, the designers brought natural light into the building through a skylight. The original ‘20s windows on the second floor of the building have also been restored.