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Crosby Opera House
Life Span: 1865 – 1871
Location: North side of Washington between Dearborn and State Streets
Architect: W. W. Boyington
Photographer: John Carbutt No. 139 (Views of Chicago)
Its plan included lecture halls, concert halls and extensive galleries. It’s seating capacity was over 3,000. The first floor was home to several retail businesses, including music publishers Root & Cady (who had moved from Clark Street), the piano store of W. W. Kimball, and the confectioner and restauranteur H. M. Kinsley. The second and third floors were occupied by business offices, while the fourth held an art gallery and the studios of several artists.
A full description of the Crosby Opera House interior can be found in the section describing the 1866 Chicago Illustrated engravings.
The Crosby Opera House turned on its lights for the first time since it began it’s summer long renovation just a few hours before The Fire hit. It was to be the most beautiful opera house in America. It was to re-open on the evening of 9 Oct 1871. The Field & Leiter building on State and the Second Presbyterian Church on Wabash can be seen.
Crosby’s Opera House was beset by bad timing and worse luck throughout its brief life. It was scheduled to open on April 17, 1865, with a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore by Grau’s Italian Opera Troupe, but the premiere was postponed three days because of the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14. Crosby ran into severe business difficulties. As a result of what the Chicago Tribune called his “disastrous failure,” by 1866 he was forced to sell the building. A group of prominent Chicagoans who wished to assist him arranged a sale by lottery. Tickets cost $5 apiece, and approximately 210,000 were purchased by individuals in Chicago and throughout the country, some 25,000 by Crosby himself. The selection of the winner took place in the theater on January 21, 1867, before a packed audience. The excitement in the great room was palpable as the moment of decision approached. The winner was one A. H. Lee, from Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, who sold the building back to Crosby for $200,000, a sum that was considerably less than Crosby’s proceeds from the lottery, so he both made money and got to keep his beloved opera house.
Drawing prizes in the Crosby Opera House Lottery
Sketched by Theodore R. Davis
The drawing on the stage was under the supervision of a committee of staid business men from Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, Detroit and Fall River, Massachusetts. In one great revolving device 210,000 numbered cards were placed. In a small one were 302 tickets, representing as many articles to be raffled. Drawings from each were made simultaneously, the holder of the drawn ticket from the large wheel being in each case the winner of the prize designated by the number on the ticket of the other wheel.
Excitement was intense when, well on in the drawing, ticket 58,600 called for the grand prize, the Crosby Opera House. The holder of the lucky number was not present, but he proved to be A.H. Lee, of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois.
Crosby’s luck now seemed to have turned for the better. By early 1871 he made plans for a major renovation of the theater, which took place that summer. The much anticipated re-opening was scheduled for October 9, with a concert led by maestro Theodore Thomas. But the Great Chicago Fire proved to be the final performer at Crosby’s, bringing down the house before Thomas could raise his baton.
George P. Upton gave the following account of the night before the Opera House was to open:
The Opera House had been brilliantly decorated and renovated throughout until it had no equal for beauty and richness in the country, and Mr. Thomas was to dedicate it anew.
It was lit up for the first time on the evening of October 8, and two or three hours later it was in ashes. Mr. Thomas and his orchestra reached the Tvventy-second street depot just after the great fire broke out, and immediately made his arrangements to go South, and that night rested in Joliet. This fire cost us, among other losses, Schubert’s quartette in D minor, Schumann’s first and fourth symphonies, Beethoven’s third (‘ Eroica ‘) and fifth, as well as some grand concertos by Rubinstein, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Littolf, Weber, Chopin and Liszt.
The Crosby Opera House between Dearborn & State Streets shows high curbed walks and good street surface. One of Chicago’s first gas lights, installed in 1850, is shown in foreground.
Chicago Block 37, on which Crosby’s Opera House was located, continued to be a star-crossed site. In 1989 the city demolished the deteriorated properties then on the block, and, only after almost twenty years of discussions, disputes, and deals that fell through, it has only recently been redeveloped. During a portion the period when Block 37’s fate was in limbo, however, it hosted a summer outdoor art studio for Chicago public school students—named gallery37—and a skating rink during the winter.
Exterior of Crosby’s Opera House
Published in “Harper’s Weekly” June 1868
Crosby Opera House
This stereograph of Crosby’s Opera House looks east along Washington Street. The tall steeple is that of the Second Presbyterian Church, which was built at Washington Street and Wabash Avenue in 1852. Its architect was James Renwick, the designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and of “The Castle,” the original building of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Like Crosby’s Opera House, it was lost in the fire. Unlike Crosby’s, it was rebuilt, though not in the same place. It moved to its current site at 1936 South Michigan, close to the Prairie Avenue neighborhood where several of its wealthy parishioners lived.
Auditorium of Crosby Opera House
An 1867 ad for the Root & Cady Music Publishing Company which was located inside the Crosby Opera House.
William W. Kimball was the Opera House’s first tenant and Mr. Kimball was good friends with composer Dr. George Frederick Root. The composer’s younger brother, Ebanear Root, a singer, along with music conductor, Chauncey Cady, formed the music publishing business in 1858.
The company became the largest music publishing house and instrument dealer in the West.
After the Great Fire destroyed the Opera House, Mr. Kimball opened his piano store on the southeast corner of State and Adams. His first year’s rent was $12,000, but he received over a million dollars in sales.
Mr. Root and Mr. Cady went separate ways. Mr. Root gave up selling musical instruments, continued to sustain a business long enough. Mr. Cady went bankrupt and left Chicago.
Crosby Opera Waltz for piano music score
Composed by Frederic Woodman Root in 1865
Dedicated to U.H. Crosby, Esq.
Crosby’s Opera House
Artist: Louis Kurz
Publisher: Jevne & Almini
Location: Washington street, between State and Dearborn streets
Published: March 1866
On this plate is given a view of the front of Crosby’s Opera building, the finest public building in the West, and hardly excelled by any similar structure in the United States. The magnificent Opera House, which is without equal in the United States, forms but a part of this elegant and costly structure. The main building, the front of which is represented in the plate, is on Washington street, between State and Dearborn streets. The view is taken from State street, looking west. The building has a front on Washington street of one hundred and forty feet; is four stories high, with a Mansard roof, and the architecture is Italian. It is built of the now justly celebrated Athena marble, quarried within forty miles of Chicago, which is extensively used in the construction of so many public buildings and private residences in Chicago.
The need of an opera house in Chicago had become more and more apparent, as the population of the city got larger, and its wealth and taste had in like manner increased. Chicago had always been a liberal patron of music, and its local celebrities, as well as foreign artists, found a public always willing to greet them and to make that greeting substantial.
In 1863, Mr. Uranus H. Crosby, of Chicago, a gentleman of means and of great enterprise, conceived the idea of building in this city an edifice of this kind, which, while designed to be of personal profit to its projector, should also be a credit and an ornament to the city, and give stability to the growing interest of the fine arts. Filled with this most honorable ambition, he, in company with W. W. Boyington, Esq., an architect of Chicago, visited the other cities of the country, examining with care all the buildings erected for like purposes, profiting alike by the practical excellencies and the practical defects which they witnessed. The results of this careful and deliberate examination was the plan of the present building, which, without exception, is generally acknowledged the best designed structure of the kind in America. It embraces all the conveniences and excellencies of the various similar establishments, and as few of their deficiencies as possible. The front of the building combines simplicity with massiveness, and the ornamental designs are sufficiently elaborate, and yet do not, as is too often the case, spoil the general effect. In the centre is a projection which is twenty-three feet wide, through which is an arched entrance to the building. Upon the parapet above this entrance are placed four statues, representing respectively Painting, Sculpture, Music, and Commerce. These were designed and execute by L. W. Volk, Esq., a sculpture of Chicago. Higher in this same central projection are two large figures, designed also by Mr. Volk, representing Music and the Drama. These are placed one on each side of an elaborate dormer window.
On the ground floor are four large halls or stores, each thirty feet front by one hundred and eighty feet deep, and sixteen feet high. These are occupied respectively by Root and Cady, J. Bauer and Company, and W. W. Kimball, as music and piano stores, and by H. M. Kinsley’s celebrated and elegant confectinery, ice cream and dining establishment.
The second floor of the main building is occupied by offices-real estate, insurance, millinery, and others. The third floor is similarly occupied. The fourth floor is devoted to the studios of artists, the following persons being now there: George P. A. Healy, J. H. Drury, C. Highwood, J. R. Sloan, Mrs. S. H. St. John, P. F. Reed, J. H. Reed, H. C. Ford, John Antrobus, E. Seibert, and D. F. Bigelow. On this same flooris a very fine Art Gallery, thirty feet wide by sixty feet long, and eighteen feet high. It is admirably arranged for the purposes to which it is devoted. It is filled with the works of the artists of this and other cities, and is one of the most attractive exhibitions of Chicago.
In the rear of the building is the Opera House, from which the whole edifice takes its name. Passing through the main entrance, already described, to the next floor, a spacious corridor is reached, which is richly ornamented with frescoes, mirrors, and statues. From this corridor open to the right two most spacious and richly furnished toilet rooms, for ladies and gentlemen. On the left of the corridor are three large doorways, through which the visitor enters the auditorium of the Opera House. The effect which is produced by the appearance of the hall, upon opera night, when filled by an audience is very fine. There are seats for three thousand persons. It is in all its parts and appointments, the finest theatre in the country, and has been so pronounced by all the artists who have seen it. It must, in fact, be seen to be greatly justly appreciated. No description, no matter how elaborate, will convey that sufficient idea of it that is once obtained by a personal view. It has that rare advantage, that a person in any part of the hall, whether in the topmost seat of the gallery, or on either side, or in the most remote part of the lobby, can see and hear every thing that passes on the stage. The view is wholly unobstructed.
The dimensions of the auditorium are eighty-six by ninety-five feet, and sixty-five feet high. The ceiling is a triumph of art. It is crowned by a central dome, some twenty-eight feet in diameter. This dome is encircled by panels bearing portraits of Beethoven, Mozart, Auber, Weber, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Gluck, Bellini, Donnizetti, Meyerbeer, and Rossini, and the other parts of the ceiling are richly frescoed and moulded in gilt. Directly in front of the stage, and over the orchestra, is a painting forty feet long. from the “Aurora” of Guido Reni, the panels on either side of which are filled with allegorical representations of Tragedy and Comedy.
The stage is extensive and convenient, and supplied with every facility. There are six proscenium boxes. The main floor is apportioned to the orchestra, the parquette, and the dress circle, the parquette rising from the orchestra to nearly the height of the circle. The second floor is the balcony circle, the centre of which is divided into fifty-six private boxes; these immediately front the stage. On the next floor is the family circle, which, though elevated, is none the less convenient. It is comfortable and admirably adapted to hearing and seeing what passes on the stage. The gallery fronts are protected, and at the same time handsomely ornamented with open wire-work, painted in white and gold, and cushioned with blue silk.
The arrangements for heating and lighting this building are complete, and have proved most successful. The entire number of burners are lighted by one operation of an electric apparatus. The means of exit from the Opera House are various, and so arranged that in case of an alarm, or of actual danger, the audience may get out of the building without confusion, easily, expeditiously, and safely. In addition, there has been added to the building another wing, fronting on State street, and containing a fine music or concert hall, fifty by ninety feet, with galleries on three sides.
The cost of the entire building and site was nearly, if not quite, seven hundred thousand dollars. This magnificent edifice was built 1864-5, and was ready for occupancy in March, 1865. The inauguration of the Opera House was intended to have taken place on the night of Monday, April 17th, 1865; but the death of President Lincoln, which took place on the Saturday previous, caused it to be postponed until Thursday, the 20th of April, when it was opened by Gran’s Italian Opera troupe, the opera being “Il Trovatore.” Previous to the opera, and as soon as the orchestra had taken their seats, there was a universal call by the densely packed audience for Mr. Crosby. That gentleman appeared, and as soon as the applause which had greeted him had subsided, made a brief and excellent address in acknowledgement of the compliment. He declined making a speech, preferring, as he said, to let the building speak for itself. His personal object, as a business man of Chicago, had been to use every effort in his power to promote the interests, elevate the tastes, and conduce to the happiness of the great city in which he had cast his lot. He introduced to the audience the Honorable George C. Bates, who read a poem written for the occasion by W. H. C. Hostner, Esq., the “Bard of Avon.” The audience assembled on that evening was undoubtedly the most numerous and brilliant ever assembled on a like occasion in this city.
The following are the persons whose names are connected with the erection and construction of this building:
|Proprietor||U. H. Crosby.|
|Architect||W. W. Boyington.|
|Ass’t Architect and Draughtsman||John W. Roberts.|
|Fresco Painting||Jevne and Alumini.|
|Painting and Graining||Heath and Milligan.|
|Scenic Artist||William Voegtlin.|
|Stage Carpenter and Machinist||Wallace Hume.|
|Carpenter and Mason||Wallbaum and Bauman.|
|Cut Stone||L. H. Bolderwick.|
|Heating Apparatus||Murray and Winne.|
|Gas Fixtures||H. M. Wilmarth.|
|Plate Glass||John R. Platt, New York|
James W. Sheahan, Esq.