What’s That Building? John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium | WBEZ
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What’s That Building? John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium

On some of the blocks around North Michigan Avenue, in gaps between the modern high rises, you can find remnants of a time when the neighborhood was crowded with 19th and early 20th century mansions, churches and other buildings. Erie Street west of Michigan, where you’ll find a cluster of three handsome old mansions and a monumental auditorium, is one of the city’s most evocative stretches of this bygone era.

Built in 1926 to mimic a chapel in Paris, the imposing limestone auditorium at 50 E. Erie St. features a tall, columned façade, a pair of bronze doors and two curving walls extending from the sides of the building to the sidewalk to frame the broad double staircase that lead up to those doors. Carved above the columns is the building’s name: John B. Murphy Memorial. Fans of Fox’s “Empire” might recall the facade from the third episode of the show’s first season in scenes outside a luxurious nightclub.

Photo of the interior of the John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium in Chicago
Jason Marck/WBEZ
Inside, a palatial lobby opens to the auditorium, where an ornate three-story domed ceiling soars overhead. The walls are decorated with ornamental plaster work, including gold laurels, and a stained-glass window in a Renaissance style glitters behind the stage. A row of carved high-back wooden chairs line the rear wall.
The building’s architects, Benjamin Marshall and Charles Fox, also designed the South Shore Country Club (now Cultural Center), the Blackstone Hotel and adjacent theater (now the Merle Reskin Theatre, owned by DePaul University), and the Drake Hotel. For this project, they mostly copied the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Consolation in Paris, built in 1901.

This picturesque building went up for sale in October, for the first time since it was built in 1926 in memory of a Chicago physician some newspapers at the time referred to as the World’s Greatest Surgeon. It has been owned for its entire 93-year history by the American College of Surgeons, which now rarely uses it, according to Alisa Azpeitia, the organization’s manager of finance and facilities.

The association’s offices are a few blocks away in a 27-story building from 1989, but from 1919 until the move, the ACS was headquartered on this block in buildings on both sides of the street, including the Murphy Auditorium and the two older mansions that flank it. “The Murphy” was renovated extensively in the early 2000s; according to Azpeitia, the work was funded by financier Richard Driehaus, who for decades has owned a mansion on the south side of Erie.

The bronze doors, carved with characters and scenes from the history of surgery.
Jason Marck/WBEZ
The Murphy's original bronze doors, decorated with characters and scenes from the history of surgery.

As is often true with sales of unusual properties, there’s no published asking price for the 32,000-square-foot, six-story building. “We are looking for someone who understands and respects the history and value of this building as it is,” Azpeitia said. There are some constraints that will weed out any potential buyers who don’t: The façade is protected as a landmark and, because the air rights above the building belongs to another owner, any new construction on the Murphy site is capped at six stories.

The Forrest Gump of Chicago physicians

So, who was Dr. John B. Murphy? He pioneered appendectomies, invented something called the Murphy button that surgeons used to connect pieces of intestinal tissue after surgery until they grew together, developed the Murphy Drip for delivering medications rectally, and made advancements in mastectomy and other operations. Born in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1857, he moved to Chicago after high school to attend Rush Medical College, graduated from medical school in 1876, and except for a year spent studying in Europe, spent his adult life in Chicago. He was a professor of surgery at three Chicago medical schools all at once: Rush, Northwestern, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons (later, the University of Illinois College of Medicine).

Murphy was also the Forrest Gump of Chicago physicians, popping up at all sorts of historical events. For example, during the Haymarket Riot in 1886, he treated nine police officers for their injuries. In 1912, Murphy performed life-saving surgery on former President Theodore Roosevelt, after he was shot in the chest by a socialist and transported by train (after delivering his scheduled 90-minute speech with the bullet lodged in his chest) from Milwaukee to Chicago’s Mercy Hospital. In February 1916, Murphy was one of 300 guests at the University Club of Chicago on Michigan Avenue, hosted by George Mundelein on the occasion of his promotion to Archbishop. Attended by the governor, a former governor, a former mayor and other prominent people, the event was hijacked when an anarchist poisoned the soup served at the banquet; dozens were sickened and two men died. Six months after the banquet, in August 1916, Murphy died on Mackinac Island at age 58. It was rumored he died from the soup, but the autopsy revealed heart disease.

He left behind an estate worth the equivalent of $29.4 million in 2019 dollars. His widow, Jeannette Plamondon Murphy, had family money of her own and was one of the leaders of a movement among Chicago surgeons to memorialize the man with a teaching auditorium.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Reset's "What's That Building?" contributor.

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