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Civic Opera House
Life Span: 1929-Present
Location: 20 W. Wacker Drive
Architect: Graham, Anderson, Probst and White
Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1926
BY OSCAR HEWITT.
Official announcement is expected soon of the acquisition of a site for the “finest grand opera house in the world”—the new home of the Civic Company of Chicago.
Samuel Insull, chief of the civic opera, has been negotiating for the Daily News property on Madison street, covering the entire area between Market street and the river, and extending northward for half a block; and it is reported that an understanding has been reached on both price and terms. In fact, the contract is reported made, signed and delivered; and formal statement on the subject only awaits release.
Owned by Kelley.
The site selected for a symphony of stone and art is owned by William V. Kelley, patron of opera, head of the Miehle Printing Press company and extensive real estate owner in Chicago. He leased the property Aug. 1, 1913, to the Chicago Daily News for 198 years. The annual rental was to be $45,000 for the first five years, $60,000 for the next ten, and $75,000 for the remaining 183 years. The Daily News was obligated to erect a building costing $1,000,000 before 1928.
The time within which the building must be erected has been modified within the last six months by agreement between the Daily News and Mr. Kelley, so that the lessor now has through 1930 within which to do the construction work. That is said to have been a preliminary to the transfer of the lease to Mr. Insull, although that change in the text had been made before the Insull negotiations started.
Area of Site.
The leasehold acquired has a frontage on Madison street of 194.33 feet and on Market street of 200.75 feet. The river at this point runs a little west of south, so that the east and west boundary line of property is said to be a trifle more tan that occupied by the Auditorium theater and office building now utilized by the Civic Opera company.
Friends of Mr. Insull have said that he has all the money and power he wants and now desires to do something truly great for Chicago, for which he will be remembered. Therefore the site for the new opera house may be much larger tha indicated above. While no statement on that particular phase of the subject has come to The Tribune, it is possible that the new civic opera home may cover the entire block between Madison and Washington streets, the river and Market streets.
LEFT: Concept Drawing
RIGHT: Completed Building
Part Owned by Insull.
The Commonwealth Edison company owns the north half of the block. This has a frontage on Market street of 189,75 feet, on Washington street of 155.25 feet. It is rumored that perhaps the Edison would release the north half of the block and buy another location as suitable and convenient for its needs.
If Grand Opera obtains the entire block, it will have a ground area larger than that occupied by the Auditorium theater, office building and hotel combined. It will also have a larger measure of light and air. The river on the west leaves an open space forever of 200 feet. Market street on the east is 140 feet wide and the other two boundary streets, Madison and Washington, are each 80 feet in width.
Of Enormous Value.
But with the Daily News property alone, an enormous building could be erected because iy has an area of 37,918 square feet. Its value on the basis of use for 198 years can only be reckoned by the most thorough specialist, but there are some facts regarding it which are evident to the layman. The lease was made in 1913 before the real estate boom struck Chicago following in the wake of war prices.
It was recognized by the Greenbaum Sons Bank and Trust company as a favorable lease. Edgar Greenbaum, vice president in charge of the bank’s real estate department, admitted yesterday that he had had some negotiations regarding the property, but he added that these were discontinued several weeks back.
The south half of the block was bought by Victor Lawrence with the idea of building an office and plant for the Daily News, but the plans were changed and the northeast corner of Canal and Madison has since been considered for the newspaper.
Opera Without Deficit.
With a home of its own and proper management, Mr. Insull has contended that grand opera can be the finest in Chicago and still have no debt.
Mr. Insull believes that a new grand opera house will also cut the expense of present opera in Chicago. He would have the building as a civic center for the downtown district. As long as the city continues, he sees the need of a large commercial organization to promote the business and industrial welfare of the municipality. So he could lease less space in the new structure to the Chicago Association of Commerce. He would have other like organizations occupy space in the proposed building.
Market Street stub terminal looking north in 1934. When it was built, Market Street was industrial; by this point, it stood in front of Chicago’s new Civic Opera House. The station had a single island platform between two pocket tracks with a crossover at the north end of the station. Note the sign on the end of the structure advertising express trains to Oak Park and Forest Park.
No Lack of Transport.
In the selection made, his main requisite has been met. When a site on Michigan boulevard and Ohio street and again when a location over the Illinois Central tracks north of Randolph street were suggested, Mr. Insull protested that each lacked sufficient transportation for the city as a whole. The spot selected is at the Market street stub end terminal of the elevated, which Mr. Insull operates. It was suggested in a formal statement from Frederick A. Delano less than a fortnight ago that this elevated be extended southward, extending eastward to the south side line below Van Buren street. Wacker drive leads over to the new opera site and the Northwestern and Union stations are near it.
Mr. Insull said that grand opera must have sufficient transportation so that everybody may patronize it as easily and as frequently as they do theaters.
Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1928
Details of the plans for what is regarded as Chicago’s outstanding cultural achievement of the decade—the permanent home of the Chicaqgo Civic Opera company—were made public yesterday for the first time by Samuel Insull, president of the organization.
Evolved after two years of study, travel, and conferences, these plans not only provide for material facilities that are expected to place Chicago in a premier position among the music centers of the world, but also contemplate thew ultimate independent financial support of the Civic Opera and the endowment of a musical educational foundation for the city.
42 Story Building Planned.
For the first there is a 42 story edifice, involving the expenditure of more than $20,000,000, occupying an entire city block and embodying the results of intensive study and research on a scale probably never before applied to similar undertakings. It will include not only an opera house and a small theater, but also shops, stores and offices.
“In completeness, in perfection of detail, and in all around adjustment to the purposes to be served,” the report says of the opera house and small theater, “it is believed both will be far ahead of any others now in existence.”
For the second, there will be the revenue resulting from the renting of the total of 662,000 square feet of office rooms, of which 500,000 square feet will be the 21 stories of the main building, and the remainder in a 21 story tower.
The Civic Opera House
Will Ease Financing.
“It is not to be expected,” the report warns, “that completion and occupancy of the building will immediately dispense with the necessity of a guarantee fund for maintenance of the Chicago Civic Opera. But the financing of opera should be made somewhat easier when the building is finished and tenanted.
“Eventually, as indicated by Mr. Insull in his address near the close of the 1926-27 season, it is believed the revenues from the building will serve, in effect, as an endowment providing a home for opera, free of charge, covering the inevitable annual deficit in the operation of the operatic season, and establishing a great civic foundation with income enough to promote artistic education in music and collateral features of opera.”
As announced some time ago, the site of the structure, which will be known officially as the No. Twenty Wacker Dive building, will be the block bounded by Wacker drive, formerly Market street, Washington boulevard, Madison street and the Chicago river.
Plaza for Aid to Traffic.
This location on Wacker drive is the only one near the center of the city that is wide enough for a plaza comparable with European plazas and squares, which are of great advantage in handling vehicular traffic. Other transportation facilities, including two surface surface car lines, the elevated, and the Union and North Western railroad stations, are equal, if not superior, to those of other sites studied, it is pointed out in the report.
Architecturally, the structure has been designed to express not only the “monumental” character associated with great opera houses abroad, but also the practical and commercial uses to which it will be adapted.
Rising 270 feet from the ground level will be the main bocy of the edifice, 21 stories high. It will have a frontage of 400 feet on Wacker drive, 190 feet on Madison street, and 150 feet on Washington boulevard.
FROM ACROSS THE RIVER, the opera building presents a magnificent picture of modern architecture. Rising to a height of forty-two stories on the western outskirts of the loop, the structure enclosing the world’s largest and finest opera house covers the block bounded by the Chicago river, Madison street, Wacker drive, and Washington street.
21 Stories in Tower.
The additional 21 stories of the central tower, of which the base dimensions will be 240 feet by 70 feet, will rise to a height of 550 feet above the street level. There will also be the equivalent of two and three stories below the street level part of which will be utilized by the Commonwealth Edison company for one of its important downtown substations.
The building will be U-shaped, with the front and sides occupied by shops and stores. The side portions or wings, as shown in the view facing the Chicago river, will embrace the opera house.
An impressive colonnade will extend along the entire 400 feet of Wacker drive frontage. Entrance to the opera house will be through a south end of the colonnade, entrance to the small theater through the north end, and entrance to the foyer, elevators, and the office building will be through the center.
Patrons of the opera coming on foot by trolley or in motor cars will arrive first under this great colonnade, which will provide protection from the weather and will be ample to permit of 35-40 automobiles taking on or discharging passengers there at once.
Ten local, eight express and eight tower elevators will serve the building. Ticket lobbies will be placed adjacent to the entrance, but out of the way of persons coming in or leaving.
The seating capacity of the opera house will be a bit more than the 3,600 of the present Auditorium. Instead of the 900 seats on the main floor of the latter, however, there will be approximately 1,700. Side boxes will be dispensed with, and instead of the 58 at the Auditorium there will be 36, each of which will offer a perfect view of the stage. Above the box office floor will be the balcony and gallery, each with approximately 858 seats.
Study Acoustical Features.
“Utilization of the acoustical features and qualities of the old and historic Auditorium,” it is said, “has been fundamental to the planning of the new opera house. These features have been carefully studied, and every detail that would add to the quality of the new achievement, both in front and back of the footlights, has been carefully employed. This auditorium, it is believed, will be the first in which the combined problems of proper vision and perfect acoustics have been worked out as one and then carried out on a large scale. Each has been made to fit the other.”
The exterior of the building, which it is hoped to have in readiness for the opening of the opera season in the fall of 1929, will probably be faced with limestone for three stories, and the remainder with brick and terra cotta. The general tone will be a soft gray, with conservative employment of color.
Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1929
BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT.
At 6:30 o’clock in this evening light will flash from the fifty-five massive lanterns and lamps which sway and gleam along the 365 feet of the colonnade of Chicago’s Civic opera house.
At that signal this new home of the most resplendent of the fine arts will open its doors to its first audience, which will number 3,471 persons and will represent an intake of $16,500.
An hour and a half later the rose-hued velour curtains of the most scientifically equipped operatic stage in the world—and forgetting Bayreuth—will be drawn apart to reveal the royal hall and the vista of temples and pyramids which are the setting of the opening scenes of Verdi’s “Aida.”
A company of 580 artists and mechanicians will participate in this dedicatory performance.
Audience to Fill Every Seat.
In the front of the house a staff of 113 doormen, ushers, maids, fire guards, and emergency hospital attendants will look after the comfort and safety of an audience that will fill every seat of an auditorium of which the capacity could, months ago, have been sold many times over, so vivid in the community’s interest in thus community project.
During the hour and a half between the opening of the doors and the parting of the curtains the audience will find overwhelming reaqsons to be impressed with the splendor and dignity of opera’s permanent home.
It is a rose-hued grotto at the base of a forty-five story, twenty million dollar commercial structure, the rentals from which are to sustain opera in perpetuity.
From its lofty foyer of travertine rock with rose and gold to its fire curtain which seems to march across the vision with a pageant of two score heroes and heroines of classic opera, the house is a jewel casket.
Civic Opera House
Ross & Browne Real Estate Map of Central Chicago
A Miracle of Mechanism.
Behind the scenes it is a miracle of mechanism—an elevator 75 feet long silently depositing backdrops in storage racks that are 35 feet below the stage and that have a capacity of 1,000 drops of a value of three million dollars—beneath the stage, lifting devices so colossal as to make you think of the mechanism of a Panama canal lock and that subtly lift the stage in part or in whole—a gridiron for the maneuvering of scenery that is 140 feet above the stage and, the better to indicate the vastness of this plant, is on the level of the fourteenth floor of the commercial structure enveloping the opera house proper—and a cyclorama, or sky background, 240 feet long and 115 feet high, as compared with the cyclorama of 180 by 60 feet in the opera’s old home at the Auditorium.
Everything which they have brought to completion at 20 Wacker drive is beautiful, everything is spacious, everything is ingenious.
It would not be saying much were it only to be said that in working out their task they have kept the comfort and happiness of the affluent in mind.
They have done a far finer thing than that.
They have wrought for the comfort and happiness of the patron whose means are moderate.
From the man whose box in this opera house costs him a hundred dollars a night to the man who can afford only a dollar seat in the top balcony, the tired business man’s customers are here going to enjoy the requisites of comfort and happiness at grand opera.
Those requisites are:
A single detail will sufficiently illustrate the provision made for safety:
The fire escapes are built in extensive spaces between the fireproof walls of the enveloping building and the opera house proper. Hence no fire can reach the escape stairways. The intervening spaces also are so designed as to shut off street noises from the auditorium.
The acoustics of the house are so good as to indicate that here the trickiest of problems has been solved and that successful acoustics, which used to be a happy accident, have become a science. The evening’s observers will not how the ceiling of the auditorium, in addition to carrying lighting troughs, also moves—so to speak—in curving waves that carry sound. In tests which I followed a voice released from the stage in the volume of an ordinary telephone conversation carried clearly and without echo to the topmost seat in the top balcony.
THE GREAT PROSCENIUM ARCH rises sheerly above the lowered, orchestra pit, with narrowing angle. that lead the eye to the ninety-foot steel curtain. The grilled bronze of the arch conceals heavy organ pipes.
“Every Seat 100% Vision.”
“Every seat is a hundred per cent vision” is already the slogan and promise of the projectors of this enterprise. A simple test will show the validity of their large claim.
You know what the main floor seats at the extreme right and left of the stage of a large opera house usually are. They are ideal pockets in which to meditate, but as points of view they are negligible. The view obtained from such seats in the Civic Opera house is startling in its completeness and facility and must represent extraordinarily subtle handling of perspectives. The ideal result has been obtained without ruinous sacrifice of space.
Another test made by the person whose heart and success of the house is closest—Samuel Insull—drew from him the subsequent remark, “Those are the best seats in the house!” With that he pointed aloft to the dress circle, which structurally may be defined as the first balcony, and he added, “Not only are they the best seats, but they cost only $4 each, and there are nine rows of them!”
1,682 Seats on Main Floor.
There are 39 rows—or a total of 1,682 seats—on the main floor. In 26 rows these seats cost $6 and in 13 rows $5.
All the seats are deeply upholstered arm chair, commodius and rightly pitched—those in the top balcony not less comfortable than those in the boxes. Nor is a view of the stage in this top balcony the equivalent of viewing it from a steep cliff. Every Chicago opera lover who has had to count his pennies will remember the terrifying pitch of the Auditoriun gallery. In the new home nothing like that. Here the cheapest seats are upholstered in the same color—although with not such rich material—as the dearest, the pitch of the floor and the rows aloft is humane, and the surroundings there are in harmony with the richness and dignity of the rest of the house.
One of the most interesting effects which the architects—Ernest Graham and his colleagues in the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White—have produced is an effect which emphatically focuses attention on the stage instead of tugging it elsewhere. Every line leads stageward and the eye is drawn restfully along those lines.
The house does not widen out in meaningless distractions, nor is it flanked by boxes. All the 31 boxes are behind the main body of the audience. This may be a source of grief to those who come to opera to be seen and hears, but it will greatly assuage the exasperations of those who come to see and hear opera.
Nor is the orchestra pit a distraction. It is unusually wide, but it also is unusually deep and its occupants will not be visible to those sitting in main floor seats. Tonight it will hold 80 musicians. Its capacity is 120. Its floor, like the floor of the stage, can be raised or lowered by electrical machinery.
The intimate tone of the house, considering the number of seats, is extraordinary. This effect has been attained largely through the incessant blendings of old rose and gold in Jules Guerin’s scheme of decoration. These hues serenely move in unison. There are no abrupt transitions and no straining for the grandiose.
Rose-hued seats, the deep proscenium rich arch of gold, leaf and old rose, the golden-hued curtains which hang over eighty lofty niches on each side of the house, and the pageantry in rose and gold on the fire curtain all combine to give the huge hall the exquisiteness of a salon rather than the magnificence of a “temple of art.” Hence the intimacy.
Throughout his scheme Mr. Guerin worked in a modernistic adaptation of the French renaissance.
Insull Speaks in Advance.
There will be no speeches at tonight’s dedication. In the old days the occasion would have been an oratorical orgy for at least three of the town’s chartered bores. Thus does mankind become humane.
The speech,” said Samuel Insull last evening, “which I could have made tomorrow night I am giving to the newspapers this evening to do with as they will, and it will be printed in the opera program throughout the first of the thirteen weeks of the season. Otherwise, I spare you.”
So here is the keynote of Mr. Insul’s dedicatory address:
Merely to build at beautiful house and give it the best equipment possible was not the fundamental idea of this undertaking. The idea was, and still is, to give opera an abiding place in Chicago, and through the Chicago Music Foundation, the organization of which has already been announced, to train and educate men and women for the production of opera and thereby make Chicago a music center worthy of its place in the world’s affairs.
Absorption of Debt Begun.
As has been announced, the new opera house is now the property of the foundation, as a gift, and already the absorption of debt upon the property has begun. Already a group consisting of Messrs. Stanley Fiels, Ernest R. Graham, Edward F. Swift, Donald R. McLennan, Bernard A. Eckhart, C. Ward Seabury, Mrs. Insull, my son, and myself have placed 3,750 shares of preferred stock ($375,000) at the disposal of the trustees of the foundation, and 2,000 other shares have also been placed at the disposal of the corporation, a total of more than half a million dollars, to be used in wiping out the obligations of the building.
Mr. Insull called the new opera house the gift to Chicago of “good citizens who have backed an idea with their faith, their credit, and their money to the extent of $20,000,000.”
Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1929
Special regulations will givern traffic in streets around the new Civic Opera house at the opening performance tinight and nightly until the season closes. Extra details of foot and mounted police have been assigned to enforce the orders and they anticipate a difficult task, on opening night at least.
Only two lines of cars will be permitted in front of the unloading ramp which runs the length of the opera house from Madison to Washington street. Cars must enter the ramp at Washington street and Wacker drive, move south in line until they reach the main entrance, discharge their passengers, and move south again, moving out of the special zone via Madison street or Market and Monroe.
A space for car parking has been reserved in Wacker drive between Washington and Randolph streets, the vehicles so aligned as to permit traffic either way in Wacker. Buses will transfer Illinois Central riders fron the Randolph street terminal to the opera house. Steam roads and interurban lines have arranged special schedules to bring opera patrons to their terminals shortly before the curtain rises.
Crowd watches the arrival of society at first night’s performance in Chicago’s $20,000,000 opera house.
Scene in Wacker Drive in front of the new building, as it appeared looking north from the elevated railroad structure at Madison street. The picture shows the double row of autos approaching the entrance by way of esplanade and the throng on the sidewalk and in the street in the shadow of the “L” structure at the right.
Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1929
BY EDWARD MOORE.
The new Civic Opera house is going to be kind to its singers.
Along about fourteen minutes past eight last night Giorgio Polacco mounted the conductor’s stand and picked up his baton. This does not mean that the performance started just then, for the audience started a round of applause that lasted until Mr. Polacco was forced to turn his back upon the orchestra, bow, wave, and wave again. Finally he was permitted tyo pick up the eyes of his players and start the evening’s music. But at that, it was not “Aide.” It was “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Opens Unlike “Aida” of old.
We all rose and sang according to our vocal limitations and our memories of the words. One stanza was enough. Then Mr. Polacco signaled for the famous beginning of the famous Verdi opera. It had not gone many measures before some of us began to come to the conclusion that because of the new Civic Opera house this was going to be a different “Aida.”
Mr. Bennett has told you something about the visual aspects of this magnificent theater. Everything that he has said is echoed and amplified from the music desk. The music desk’s manifest duty at present is to state and reiterate that the sound of operas hereafter is going to be quite as noble and stately as its sight.
Aide” is by no means a new work in the annals of Chicago’s opera. It inaugurated the first season at the Auditorium nineteen years ago. It was the first performance when the Chicago Civic Opera company became the phoenix hatched out of the Chicago Opera association; it has been sung many times and under many conditions. In its various showings, Rosa Raisa generally been my favorite Aida and Cyrena Van Gordon my favorite Amneris. They were never more so than last night.
AIDA’S SPLENDORS unfolding themselves upon the stage at the first performance in Chicago’s new opera house. This festival creation was a choice at once happy and of good augury; Aida inaugurated the first season at the Auditorium nineteen years ago, and was the first performance of the Civic Opera company in 1922.
Prologue a Masterpiece.
But let us get back to the beginning. I am told that the orchestra pit, as spacious as those of the Paris Opéra, Milan’s La Scala, and other famous European opera houses, and like them sunk from the view of the public, is floored and backed with hard wood. Fir that reason the orchestra is, or ought to be seated in the midst of a huge sounding board. Whatever the premises, the conclusions are obvious. I never heard the prologue of “Aida” sound as opulent as it did last night under Mr. Polacco’s baton. The strings were rich and full toned without suspicion of the scrape of bows, the woodwinds sang without nasality, the brasses resounded with never a thought of a snort. In fact, the pair of themes that Verdi used as characterizations of his festival opera became a miniature symphonic poem.
Voices Climax Emotions.
And what applied to the orchestral instruments while the curtain was down applied equally to the voices of the singers after it rose. It would seem that the back of the stage is a sounding board also. Mr. Marshall’s “Celeste Aida,” frequently a cause for rejoicing in past years, was doubly so here. Mis Van Gordon was never so fine as in this performance., To a voice nothing short of gorgeous she had added a complete understanding of the dramatic value of the musical pause, altogether making a performance such as even she had never given before.
Then came Miss Raisa to put a flaming top piece on all the tonal glories that had gone before. Then came Mr. Baromeo and Mr. Lazzari, two superb basses, never by any possibility to be mistaken for each other, but each rolling out melody, dramatic emotion, clearly cut words. Finally in the triumphal scene and the succeeding Nile scene came Mr. Formichi, with a baritone voice that for sheer beauty and effortless ease created new standards of his own.
Costuming Shows Change.
Though this is necessarily an essay in the matter of acoustics, it is advisable to add that the Civic Opera company foes itself rather well in the matter of visual display. One seems to recognize the scenery of “Aide” from former days in the Auditorium, but it was a rich setting then and it is a rich setting now. At the same time one discovers some new items in the matters of costuming, a king and a princess, for instance, who had become more regal in bearing and appearance than ever before.
Looking back at the performances, one can wish that there had been only one addition. This was in the triumphal scene. Here the principals had outdone themselves, the stage was covered with scenery, lighting—the lighting, by the way, deserves an essay of its own, so far advanced from former standards—ballet, supernumeraries. Mr. Polacco and the orchestra had lifted themselves to enormous heights of festival display. The stage band had added to the gorgeous hurrah, and being concealed, had not intruded the sight of modern instruments upon an ancient Egyptian scene. But the scene needed about twice as many choristers. The chorus is an efficient and expertly trained body, but a larger body would have given a much greater effect.
Opening night of the Civic Opera House
The Triumph Scene from Verdi’s “Aida.”
Ballet a Step Forward.
The ballet, by the way, is a new one, and from all appearances, destined to be a long step forward in the Civic Opera company’s dealings with the art of the dance. Laurent Novikoff, its master and first dancer, used to be the first male figure in the lovely group that surrounded Anna Pavlowa. We knew he was one of the world’s greatest male dancers then. He apparently is an important personage in matters of choreography as well.
The slowly moving grouping of priestesses in the temple—act I, scene 2—was the best designated scene in all the memory of “Aide.” The Triumph scene, with its high lights of sun tanned epidermis, was entirely what a triumph scene should be, an ebullient, surging mass of human bodies and human limbs that rose and fell with the rise of Verdi’s music and yet had something definite, pictorial, to contribute to an exciting occasion.
Only the first performance in the new opera house has taken place. But it looks like a real season of opera.
Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1929
THE NEW GOLDEN HORSESHOE blazed with jewels and a shimmering rainbow of color last Monday night as the Chicago Civic Opera presented the spectacle of its house warming party. It was a premiere of magnificence altogether ~ fitting for the world’s largest and finest opera house.
Every year the Chicago Civic Opera makes a post-season tour which is one of the most important enterprises in advertising the cultural side of Chicago. In the last seven years the company has visited forty-two cities and given 390 performances. During that period, literally millions of pieces of advertising literature have been distributed, and the press clippings collected might be measured by the rod.
THE AUDITORIUM as it appears from the stage. It seats a total of 3,600 persons; 1,700 on the main floor, 850 each In balcony and gallery, and the remainder in the thirty-six boxes. The balconies are reached by elevators.
The Civic Opera House From the Madison Street Bridge
IN THE HISTORIC OPENING of Chicago’s new opera palace tomorrow evening, Rosa Raisa will have the honor of singing the principal soprano part. She will have the role of Aida, for which she is costumed here, in Verdi’s opera of the same name, a spectacular and impressive work which has served many times to usher in operatic seasons.
November 3, 1929
Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1959
Seventh article in a series
THE scenes change quickly when you visit the Kemper Insurance building, 20 N. Wacker dr., formerly the Civic Opera building, the last big real estate venture of the late Samuel Insull.
There’s the immense opera house with its cavernous stage and maze of supporting facilities. “A jewel casket,” one writer described the opera house when it opened late in 1929 with a performance of Verdi’s “Aida.”
There’s the workaday world of business. With 745,000 square feet of office space, occupied by a variety of “blue chip” companies, the building is the fourth largest office skyscraper in Chicago.
Making a Thatched Roof From Model
Civic Opera House Studio
And for a view of today and tomorrow, take an elevator to one of the upper floors and look out over Wacker drive, the fastest developing street in downtown Chicago, and the near west side where city planners are projecting many new public and private developments.
Insull promoted the 23 million dollar building with the idea that revenue from the commercial portion would off-set the annual deficits of grand opera. (The opera house and the smaller Civic theater account for a third of the 20,800,000 cubic feet content of the building.)
But the depression and the crash of Insull’s utility empire intervened. Office buildings were piling up some tidy deficits of their own.
General Finance corporation acquired the property in war time 1943 and five years later sold it to Lumbermens Mutual Casualty company, a member of the Kemper Insurance Group, for $10,735,000. The Kenper companies, whose principal offices are at 4750 Sheridan rd., have the 38th floor and parts of the 9th and 10th.
The U-shaped building, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, occupies the block bounded by Wacker, Madison and Washington streets, and the Chicago river. At the Madison-Washington corner once stood the old Central Union block, the first brick building built and occupied in the burned district after the fire of 1871.
Home of business and opera, the Kemper Insurance building “discovered” Wacker drive back in the late ’20s. Many new buildings have followed it there since World War II.
Counting the three floors under the peak roof, the building rises to a height of 45 stories. Its exterior is largely Indiana limestone and its most impressive exterior feature perhaps is the 400 foot long colonnade along the Wacker side.
The architects did an excellent job in not penalizing the office portion of the building with the opera house complement, said John W. Arthur, executive vice president and general manager of the building corporation. The building has been particularly successful in attracting offices of large corporations, including Pick Hotels corporation, American Telephone and Telegraph company, Marquette Cement Manufacturing company, Cities Service Oil company, and Standard Oil company (Indiana).
There are two TV transmitter towers—NBC and ABC—on the roof. Both networks also have transmitter facilities in the building, NBC on the 42d and ABC on the 44th in a space where Insull once had an apartment. On the 39th is the plush Tower club, formerly the Electric club.
Commonwealth Edison company has a substation—in the subbasement of course. The building produces more heat than it uses, selling the surplus steam to nearby buildings on Madison street. It is served by 33 elevators which, since the building opened, have traveled up and down a total of 31? million miles. In recent years the building has been completely air conditioned.
The 3,531 seat opera house is in use about a third of the time, for opera, other entertainment, and meetings, Arthur said. The stage has an area equivalent to the total floor space of nine average homes. The seating portion of the theater goes up seven floors and the stage 13 stories.
Until about a year and a half ago the Civic theater served as ABC’s TV studio. It is being prepared now for legitimate theater use, said Arthur.
Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1988
CIVIC OPERA HOUSE TIMELINE
1928—Shares issued for Chicago Music Foundation, Insull’s funding vehicle for Civic Opera Building.
1929 November 4—Civic Opera House opens with performance of “Aida.”
1929 November 11—Civic Theatre opens with performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
1930’s—Four different opera companies come and go during the precarious Depression years.
1943 July 26—Wacker Corporation established by General Finance to purchase the building from Chicago Music Foundation. Provision made for opera companies to rent opera house for $1. No takers.
1944 December 26—World premiere Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” in Civic Theatre.
1943-1945—Twenty North Wacker Building active in war effort through opera house shows and government tenancy.
1946—”Anna Lucasta” longest-running show in Civic Theatre history—9 months.
1948 November 30—Kemper Insurance buys building for $10.7 million. Name changed to Kemper Insurance Building.
1948—Civic Theatre leased to WENR-TV, Channel 7, as its main broadcast studio for “Super Circus,” Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club.
1954 February 5—First performance of Lyric Theatre of Chicago, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” starring Eleanor Steber and Leopold Simoneau.
1956—Lyric Theatre becomes Lyric Opera of Chicago.
1959 February 24—Civic Theatre re-opened as legitimate playhouse with “The Girls in 509,” starring Imogene Coca.
1967—Lyric Opera season cancelled due to musicians’ strike.
1971—Three grand ladies of the theatre, Katharine Hepburn (“Coco”), Dame Jusith Anderson (“Hamlet”), and Lauren Bacall (“Applause”) highlight a year of great theatre. Also, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens perform the rock-opera dance “Tommy.”
1972—Performance by Moiseyev Dance Company interrupted by smoke bombs.
1973—Fire on stage of opera house during run of “Lorelei,” starring Carol Channing. Fire curtain saves theatre.
1974—Final performance in Civic Opera House by Maria Callas in concert with Giuseppe DiStefano.
1978—Mikhail Baryshnikov makes U.S. debut on stage of Civic Opera House.
1978—Krzysztof Penerecki’s “Paradise Lost”—first commission by Lyric Opera.
1982—Civic Opera re-lit after seven years with musical comedy “Ladies in Waiting.”
1983 May—Kemper Insurance Building sold to Dino J. D’Angelo. Original name reinstated, Civic Opera Building. Civic Center for Performing Arts founded.
1986—Civic Studio Theatre opens with “78 Revolutions.”
1986-1987—Lyric Opera of Chicago expands to their longest season, nine operas.
1987 February—Civic Center for Performing Arts presnts the first Spring Festival of Dance.
1987 October—”It’s A Dog’s Life” premieres in Civic Studio, the first production by Civic Center for Performing Arts.
1988—Very Special Arts Festival showcases talents of handicapped children in Civic Opera House.
1988—Celebration of Sixtieth Anniversary season begins.
Chicago Opera Companies Timeline
INSULL’S THRONE MYTH.
All the stories of the Civic Opera House being designed to look like a throne are fabrications because of the seemingly chair-like design. These fabrications tried to associate the term “Insull’s Throne” to the design. In reality, “Insull’s Throne” was a reference to the Edison Building where Insull ran his Napoleonic empire from. The design was driven by economics and air circulation.
Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1971
One of the romantic stories about prominent Chicago buildings is that the Civic Opera Building, now called the Kemper Insurance Building, 20 N. Wacker Dr., was designed like a throne in which, imaginatively, Samuel Insull, the developer, could sit and view the westward horizon of the city.
Nonsense, says T. Cliffird Noonan, senior vice president of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the prolific architectural firm which designed many of Chicago’s downtown buildings.
The congenial, white-haired man rattled off a story which showed that the hard realities come before flights of fancy with design.
Noonan, who started with the firm in 1924, said the first concept was of a square building, not tall. But the architects faced two problems: hiw to ventilate the large interior spaces and how to provide enough commercial areas to make it an economic success.
The architects had a running battle with leasing agents that reached a crescendo when the agents wanted to convert a proposed first aid station into a candy store.
Noonan remembers Ernst Graham, one of the partners, shouting back:
Do you know how many babies are born in the Marshall Feld (& Co.) store? Do you want that to happening in this building?
The agent relented.
It was a successful ploy altho Graham would have been dumbfiunded if he had been challenges to give a total of store-born babies.
Graham is known to be a promoter for the firm. “He started out as a bricklayer and he could really put the pieces together for a building,” Noonan said. The other partners had skills in areas which made it a highly successful team.
Noonan said that one day, when they were wrestling with the design of the building “Graham burst in with a full head of steam and said he knew how to solve the problems. ‘We’re going to build up.'”
This created what looks like the back of a high chair or throne.
LEFT: Field Building, 1932
MIDDLE: The Chicago Daily News Building, 1929
RIGHT: Civic Opera House, 1929
He tells a little known story about the Field building (1933), now called the La Salle National Building, 135 S. La Salle St. He drew the original sketches for the office building.
Early in the planning of the building there was a proposal to consolidate the Field property, the Borland Building, Harris Trust and Savinh=gs bank, and property owned by Samuel Insull and create one structure on the entire block bounded by Adams, Monroe, Clark, and La Salle Streets.
But when the discussion got around to the name of the proposed huge office and bank building the talks suddenly ended. Apparently the other parties didn’t want to lose their identity in a “Field” building, he said.
Today, its Loop work centers on the 45story CNA Center Building at Wabash Avenue and Van Buren Street. The firm also was associate architect for the 70-story Lake Point Tower Building.
Edward Probst, vice president, listed other clients like Motorola, Honeywell, the University of Illinois dental school, and Du Page County Administrative complex.
“At one time we were the C. F. Murphy (Associates) of the city,” Probst said. (The Murphy firm is one of the most active downtow,) “Maybe, the cycle is turning around again.”