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McVicker’s Theater IV
Life Span: 1885-1890
Location: Madison Street, Between State & Dearborn
Architect: Adler & Sullivan
Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1885
M’VICKER’S RENOVATED THEATRE.
A visit was paid yesterday to the new McVicker Theatre, which has been in course of reconstruction since April 1, and which will be thrown open to the public July 1. Though sawdust, shavings, and the smell of fresh paint, and under a network of scaffoldings, Mr. McVicker himself led the way up the staircase (now in the east side if the house) to the top gallery. When by gradual ascents the highest point in Olympus was reached, a scene was unfolded to the view the striking points of which are here summarized:
The house looked smaller, or, it more be better to say, more compact than of old. The stage has been moved closer to the audience and the proscenium arch lowered about nine feet and made wider. From the top of the curtain projects a slanting sounding-board, elaborately carved, which, when it is finished, will be studded with electric lights. Considerable superfluous space is thus cut off and a more intimate connection established between auditorium and stage. The dome in the centre, from which was formerly suspended the immense chandelier, has disappeared, and electric lights will be disposed in a circle in the ceiling interspersed with ventilating apertures. The days of the chandelier in theatres are past, and one can say good-by to the cumbrous ornament without a pang, for people in the body of the body of the house never looked up at it without thinking of the sword of Damocles. The space in McVicker’s that was formerly taken up with mirrors is now devoted to private boxes, two skillfully arranged tiers on each side affording twelve boxes in all. They slant toward the stage, three in a row, and the first three be thrown into one when engaged by a single theatre party. Above the second tier, which is arranged like the first one, will be mirrors which will reflect the ornamental work of the proscenium sounding-board. Over the upper gallery the roof has been raised and the gallery itself has been divided into two compartments; the higher, upholstered in leather, is the twenty-cent place, and the lower, furnished with cushioned chairs, is called the second balcony, and has distinct entrances and exits of its own. Beneath the second balcony is the first, substantially unchanged. The main floor will be termed the family circle. What was formerly the parquet is distinguished by a railing from the surrounding seats and will be provided with parlor chairs.
In taking the visitors through the house Mr. McVicker explained some of the improvements, saying:
You will notice that the gallery, the first and second balconies, and the lower floor are all furnished with retiring-rooms and with ice-water brought from a cooler in the basement. I believe that those who pay 25 cents for a seat should have the conveniences provided for those wwho pay $1.50. To make cleanliness and comfort prevail in the gallery will, I think, render the theatre attractive to many who would otherwise seek the cheap accommodations of variety dives. The system of ventilation is a reversal of the one most commonly in use. Fresh air will be drawn through the roof and distributed by an interactive system of pipes all over the house, and under every seat will be an aperture through which the impure air will be drawn into the exhaust shafts on each side if the building. The air in the theatre will thus be changed every fifteen minutes. As the house is open on all sides the gallery will have five exits, the second balcony seven, the first balcony nine, and on the lower floor every aisle will lead to a door. These precautions, superfluous, though some of them may be over-thought, will effectually remove the fear which causes panics. All my machinery is placed in the building on the other side of the eastern alley and under the alley itself. In cold weather the vestibule will be heated by pipes beneath the steps, which will prevent cold air from reaching the auditorium. A corps of artists has been at work for the last month in the new sets of scenery.
The main entrance when finished will be quite imposing. It has been widened by the removal of two stairways and by cutting into the shops on either side. There will be two ticket-offices—one for advance and one for regular sales. The vestibule will have three rows of doors—the first row of plain glass fronting on the street, the second of beveled glass, and the third of stained glass. In regard to decoration the keynote of the entrance will be dark mahogany leading into peacock blue. Then all the lower part of the theatre proper, as it now appears, is done in reddish yellow, gradually growing lighter and lighter as the eye wanders upward until the in the carved work of the ceiling and proscenium arch it is lost in a creamy whiteness. The effect can hardly be judged until the whole is illuminated by electric lights; but the scheme of coloring seems to combine at present simplicity and cheerfulness with no attempt at display. Behind the tier of boxes on either side is a foyer, affording the occupants space enough to move about between the acts. The theatre, in a word, has undergone a complete transformation, and there is no trace of the sombre spirit that seemed to brood over the house in other years.
Inter Ocean, August 27, 1890
LE PEER’S QUEER STORY.
There remains but little doubt that the burning if McVicker’s Theater was due to an incendiary, though as yet neither the owners nor the police have been able to assign a reason for the crime other than the wanton desire to destroy.
The theater was first discovered to be on fire by James L. LePeer, the night watchman, about 2 o’clock yesterday morning. He was making his rounds when he discovered a pile of rags in flames in an entry which leads from the stage to so some dressing-rooms in the southeast part of the building. He succeeded in extinguishing the fire with very little trouble.
Nearly an hour later he discovered another fire beneath the stage in a large open room used for storage of old scenery and stage properties. Instead of turning in an alarm of fire at once he attempted to put fire out. It gained rapidly on him, and at 3:20 p’clock he pulled an American District Telegraph alarm. Two minutes prior to this, however, some one turned in a regular alarm from the box corner of tate and Madison streets.
who has his quarters with Engine Company No. 13, on Dearborn street, near Lake, was the first fireman on the ground. He hastily took in the situation, and at 3:23, or five minutes after the first alarm was turned in, he sent in a 4:11 alarm, calling for ten more engines. In speaking yesterday of the fire he said:
When I reached the scene the whole basement of the building seemed to be on fire. I ran into the alley west of the theater. The main seat of the fire at that time seemed to be under the auditorium, near the ventilating fans. It must have have been burning for a comfortable length of time, for the heat was even then terrible. Giving a few hasty directions I ran to the fire alarm box and turned in a 4-11 call.
When I came back we broke in at the front part of the building, but the auditorium was so full of smoke that it was almost impossible to enter it. I sent some men up on the outside to open the gates for ventilation, and had streams pouring in at all the basement windows,. But they seemed to have no effect whatever. I had ordered some of my men to cut holes in the roof to let the smoke out from that point, but before they could reach it the thing gave way and came down with a crash. This may give you some idea as to the remarkably short time the roof stood under the fire.
The Fire Must Have Been Burning
at least fifteen or twenty minutes before the alarm was turned in. What the watchman was doing in that time is more than I can say. Had he been attending his business he must have known it. If he was in the building he must have known of the serious damage. How a man in his senses could allow a fire to gain such headway before turning in an alarm is more than I can see. The first alarm was turned in at 3:18 o’clock, and five minutes later I had taken in the situation and turned in a 4:11 alarm. I did not see the watchman at all, so can not tell you what was his condition. But of this I am sure, he was not attending to business.
From the foregoing facts and the records at the American District Telegraph office it will be seen that Marshal O’Malley was not far wrong when he stated that LePeer was not attending to his duty. Located in the building were three signal boxes, one of which the watchman was required to pull every half hour. One of these boxes were was in what is called the dome, another on the sixth floor, and the third in the basement. At 2 o’clock LePeer pulled the box in the dome. At 2:30 he should have pulled the box in the basement, but instead he pulled the one on the sixth floor. The receiving clerk at the office noticed the mistake and sent a man over to the theater building to ascertain what was the matter.
that nothing was wrong but that he had merely made a mistake and pulled the wrong box. At 3:08 he pulled the box on the sixth floor, and twelve minutes later he pulled an alarm of fire from the basement box. At 3:18 o’clock, or two minutes before he turned in an alarm, some one from the outside sent in an alarm.
By this it will seem that LePeer was on the sixth floor when he should have been in the basement; that thirty-eight minutes later he pulled the same box, and fifty minutes later he turned in an alarm of fire from the basement. If it is true that he discovered a small fire in the hallway leading to the dressing-rooms east of the stage at 2 o’clock, how could he have pulled the signal-box in the dome at that hour? He could not have been at both places, and the signal recorded at the American District Telegraph office shows beyond a question that the dome box was pulled on time at 2 o’clock. The dome box was in the front part of the building, on the eighth floor, and the fire he alleges to have put out at 2 o’clock was in the back part of the basement. Thirty minutes after he pulled the dome box he pulled the box on the sixth floor when he should have pulled the basement box. Even then he din’t go to the basement according to the records of the pulls at the central office, but remained on the sixth floor until 2:38—eight minutes after the regular time for pulling the box—
And Pulled It Then.
He seems then to have been seized with a desire to visit the basement again. Going down he discovered another fire in the storage room under the auditorium. Allowing him five minutes to reach the scene of the fire from the box on the sixth floor, he could have fought the flames seven minutes before giving it up, for twelve minutes after he pulled the sixth floor box he turned in an alarm from the basement.
Going back to the first of the present month, it may be remembered that in the hallway where the 2 o’clock fire of yesterday morning occurred, a lot of oily rags were discovered on fire by this same watchman, He lost no time in putting the fire out, and in the morning reported it to the management of the theater. The matter was reported to Fire Inspector Shay, who failed to discover the slightest signs of oil on the rags. In answering the Inspector’s questions, Le Peer suggested that the rags must might have caught spontaneously. If this were true the smell of the smoke which would have arisen from the rags for some time before the the fire broke out would have filled the building. So on the whole Inspector Shay was rather inclined to doubt the story. He had in his experience know of watchmen who, desirous of making a good record, had started fires in the premises they watched for the express purpose of putting them out. This might not have been the way with Le Peer, but at best he told a very loose and disconnected story. As to the fire if yesterday morning, Mr. Shay had not seen the watchman since it occurred, and was not prepared to talk concerning it. He had a theory as to the origin if the fire and believed it was the correct one. He would follow it out unless facts disclosed that he was wrong. What his theory was he would not say.
It was reported last night that Watchman Le Peer, of McVicker’s Theater had been taken into custody, but it does not appear that such is the case, although the man was not at his home, No. 474 Fulton street, at 11 o’clock. Earlier in the evening he reported to Manager Sharpe at the Auditorium, and was told by him to go back home, as the city police would guard the burned-out theater.
Inspector Shay was closeted with Le Peer about an hour this afternoon. He was questioned closely by the Inspector. It can be said that he failed to set aside the suspicion with which he is regarded, and he will be watched to see that he does not attempt to leave the city. An effort was made to see Shay last night, but it did not succeed. Before retiring he had left positive instructions that he was not to be disturbed, and so well was he obeyed that no one could get within forty feet of his door.
Messrs. Sharpe and McVicker both reiterated their confidence in the watchman, but the former was a little surprised when told that the man had made contradictory statements about sending in his calls from different parts of the building.
The Inter Ocean, September 2, 1890
Though a banking firm Mr. J. H. McVicker begun the sale of stock of the McVicker Theater Company Building, under which corporate name McVicker’s Theater will be rebuilt. Mr. McVicker will retan the majority if stock, and will, if it be desired, serve as president of the organization. Mr. McVicker said in an interview said:
Yes; I have decided to restore ‘McVicker’s Theater,’ and in reaching this conclusion I believe I meet the desire of the citizens of Chicago. Personally I should prefer retirement, but I am impressed to believe that I shall live longer by continuing an active life and there is so much in the world worthy of appreciation that I am in no hurry to change my form of enjoying it. Chicago is the second city in the Union and can not have too many places if amusement for the welfare and the comfort of its citizens and the strangers constantly within its gates—there may be too many for their own good—but that is another question. I am a a free-trader. I shall not change the form of the auditorium for there is no better in existence, nor shall I change the scheme of color in the decoration which has been universally admired. I shall make improvements of a substantial kind and add to the comfort of my patrons, doing nothing simply for show and glitter in front of the curtain. The brightest form of art is the simplest.
There is no such thing as making a theater fire-proof against the attacks of incendiaries who do their work in the quiet of the night. To make it water-proof against the efforts of the fire department is another possibility, but I shall have a theater in which no fire can make headway during a performance and which from its comforts and conveniences will be panic-proof. I will make improvements on the stage and have secured the services of my old machinist John Burton, who will carry my desires working under the direction of my architects, Adler & Sullivan.
Gunther’s Ice Cream Parlor
McVicker’s Theatre Lobby
Gunther’s Ice Cream Parlor
McVicker’s Theatre Lobby
McVickers Theatre IV
Madison Street, Between State & Dearborn
Robinson Fire Map 1886
Volume 1, Plate 1