Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Civic Opera Building, Chicago
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Civic Opera Building (1929) Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

When Chicago was a relatively young, wild city and starting to make its mark in the world, leaders in the business community decided that the next step on the way to urban sophistication and recognition, was to open an art museum and a build a jaw dropping opera house. They accomplished both. Then, after nearly 40 years of performances in the Auditorium Theater, built to house the Chicago Grand Opera Company, the Adler & Sullivan masterwork was slated for demolition. So in 1926 opera board president Samuel Insull lead the charge to build a new, spectacular opera building on the banks of the Chicago River.

  [Civic Opera Building, Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Insull was a utilities magnate. Electricity was his game, and he built an empire that   included the giant Commonwealth Edison franchise, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company (CRT), today's "L" system, the suburban inter-urban rail system, and a controlling interest in the electric usage of 6,000 utility providers in 37 states. In 1929, the year the new opera building was completed, he was the president of 9 other companies and sat on the board of 85 corporations, 65 of which he chaired. What you can't see today casting its long shadow on the building's impressive colonnade, is Insull's elevated spur line that hovered over the grand entrance of of the Civic Opera House, Civic Theater and the office towers of 20 N. Wacker Drive, where it ended. The small extension was part of Chicago's downtown Loop elevated system and could deliver opera goers right to the building's front door. It was torn down in the mid-1940s as part of the transformation of old, warehouse-packed Market Street into modern Wacker Drive.

  [Civic Opera Building, Chicago, City of Chicago Landmark /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

With Insull's backing, architect's Graham, Anderson, Probst & White pulled out all the stops in designing the $20,000,000 structure. Insull realized that the opera could never pay for itself, he took over the old company in 1920 when it was near bankruptcy, and built an office tower above the auditoriums of the Civic Opera House and the smaller Civic Theatre, to generate rental income in an effort to help offset the costs associated with turning out grand opera. But the stock market came crashing down in October, 1929 just 7 months after opening night. The event proved disastrous for Insull. He lost everything. Apparently he wasn't quite the businessman everyone thought he was, he had leveraged his entire empire on personal guarantees and when the markets started collapsing, so did the utilities king's finances. The building managers found tenants to lease the office space, but the opera company didn't fare as well. They were out of business by 1932, and another company was formed under the original name, Chicago Grand Opera, but they only ran for 3 years. Another company was organized in 1935, then again in 1940, but by 1946 Chicago no longer had a resident opera company to boast about.
All that changed in 1954 when Carol Fox organized the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Under the leadership of her successor Ardis Krainik, the Lyric became financially solvent, a first since the original company was founded in the 1880s, and thrives in grand style, in Insull's grand vision, to this day.

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