Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 187 – Hardesty G. Maratta and the Spectatorium

Part 187: Hardesty G. Maratta and the Spectatorium

Hardesty C. Maratta and Frank C. Peyraud were actively involved with Steele MacKaye (1842–1894) and his Spectatorium project for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Maratta had committed to a fifteen-year contract with MacKaye during the planning stage of the Spectatorium. He was hired to head MacKaye’s scenic department.

Proposed Spectatorium. Image posted in: https://chicagology.com/
Traverse section of proposed Spectatorium. Image posted in: https://chicagology.com/
Proposed Spectatorium. Image posted in: https://chicagology.com/

The Spectatorium was to be the largest auditorium in the world and part of the 1893 Chicago World Fair. On September 25, 1892, the “Chicago Herald” described the much-anticipated venture: “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.” William LeBaron Jenney and W. B. Mundie were the architects of this endeavor, costing over $350,000 for the structure alone. This price did not include furniture, scenery or machinery. In the article, MacKaye was quoted that the undertaking was “the realization of full twenty years of fond dreams and much study in the realm of the spectacular.”

Steel MacKaye

The Spanish Renaissance style building more ground than any other building planned for the fairgrounds. The front extended over 480 feet with a depth averaging 311 feet. The height was 100 feet and included a large dome in the center will be surmounted by a statue of Fame. Tbe theatre would seat 9,200, with ample exits that could empty the house in about half the time of an ordinary theater. The stage proscenium was 150 feet wide with a proportionate depth. The stage was arranged so it could accommodate its flooding with real water at a depth of four feet. The scenery was planned run with wheels on railroad irons, placed under the water. Each piece would be separately controlled from the prompter’s desk. The prompter will only have to push a button and the electric motor would do the work of 250 men. The overall intent was to prevent any mistakes in the shifting of scenes.


Investors included George M. Pullman. E. L Browster, Edson Keith, John Cuday, F. W. Peck, H. E. Bucklene Lyman J. Gage, Murry Nelson, Benjamin Butterworth, C. H. Deere, Arthur Dixon, J. J. Mitchell, Andrew McNally, Franklin H. Head, Ferdinand W. Peck, E. H. Phelps, F. G. Logan, N. B. Ream David Henderson, A. C. McClurg, Andrew McNally, Ben Butterworth, F. E. Studebaker, and other well-known citizens. Newspaper articles published that the gentlemen claimed, “It will be a more pleasing and more talked of novelty than the Eiffel Tower.”

The anticipated production and scenic effects were described in the “Chicago Herald” (September 25, 1892):

“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 choruses 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 that it will be the greatest of the kind ever attempted.”

MacKaye was and actor, director, playwright and inventor. He was well known for his stage technology, especially his improvements to New York’s Madison Square Theatre where he engineered the “double stage.” This included an elevator the size of a full stage that was raised and lowered by counterweights and reduced scene changes to one or two minutes. By 1885, MacKaye had established three theaters in New York City: the St. James, Madison Square, and the Lyceum Theatre.

Patent by Steele MacKaye, 1893.

Unfortunately, his “super theatre” destined for Chicago was deprived of funds during the panic of 1893. On February 27, 1894, the “San Francisco Call” reported, “The MacKaye Spectatorium 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.”

The unfinished structure of the Spectatorium is visible in the background. Image posted in: https://chicagology.com/

The dismantling of the Spectatorium was covered in the Chicago Tribune on 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 America on a scale larger than was ever attempted. MacKaye 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.”

It was reported that 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.” Then Building Commissioner declared that the Spectatorium must be torn down as it was dangerous. It took two hundred men, thirty days, and $15,000 to clear the site and remove the 1,200 tons of iron. The lumber was repurposed for sidewalks and the building of small cottages for working people.

To be continued…

One of the best internet sites that I have encountered for information pertaining to Chicago events, structures and people is “Chicagology.” Here is the link: https://chicagology.com/ The site provided some lovely images from the planning and initial construction of Steele MacKaye’s Spectatorium.

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