Monday, June 19, 2017

Crosby's Opera House, Chicago, Illinois (1865-1871)

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 also 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, 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 opera house was built on Washington Street between State and Dearborn Streets on Chicago's Block 37.
Crosby Opera House Main Entrance on Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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 center 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, a sculpture of Chicago. Higher in this same central projection are two large figures also designed by Volk, representing Music and the Drama. These are placed one on each side of an elaborate dormer window (see illustration above).
Looking East on Washington Street from Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.

Looking East on Washington Street from Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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.
Looking West on Washington Street from State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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 confectionery, 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.
Looking West on Washington Street from State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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 3,000 people. It is in all its parts and appointments, the finest theater 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 center 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 a gas 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.

This magnificent edifice was built 1864-5, and was ready for occupancy in March, 1865. The cost of the entire building and site was nearly, if not quite, $700,000 (today: $11,145,000), a sum that financially ruined Crosby.

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.”

Giuseppe Verdi'a "IL TROVATORE"
The Complete Opera.

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, 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 opera house and Crosby had trouble turning a profit, so in 1866, Crosby's backers proposed a lottery to raise money.

Advertisement in the 1866 Harper's Weekly.

Crosby Opera House $5 Lottery Ticket (today: $85 per ticket), a large sum of money for the time.
The prizes weren't small; in fact, the grand prize was the building itself. 210,000 tickets were sold at $5 each, with Crosby having been given 25,593 tickets so he had a chance to win the building and its contents back. The public had bought over $1,000,000 in chances on a $700,000 building.
Lottery Drawing - January 21, 1867.
The drawing, held on January 21, 1867, was a major event. The city came to a halt so that people could see who the big winners were. The winner of the building was Abraham Hagermann Lee of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. There was no telegraph office in Prairie du Rocher, so a messenger had to be sent on horseback. When the news arrived with Lee, he was at home caring for his sick wife. He soon made the trip to Chicago to meet with Crosby. Lee told Crosby that he had no interest in leaving his wife to come to Chicago to take possession of the opera house. The two men struck a deal; Lee relinquished his claim to Crosby for the sum of $200,000. 

Subtracting the $200,000 given to Lee, Crosby paid off the construction costs, pocketed a $100,000 profit, and still owned the Opera House. Of course, there were questions whether Abraham Lee even existed.

When Lee returned to Prairie du Rocher, he made plans to build a grand residence. He chose a spot below the bluffs and had a house built for him and his wife. Lee died in 1869 and the house was bought by F.W. Brickey, Lee's partner in Prairie du Rocher's grain mill. The house then became known as the Brickey house.
Historic Abraham Hagermann Lee Mansion in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. (1868-1970)
The Brickeys lived there for many decades, but the house was eventually abandoned, furnishings and all. It began to decay and was eventually destroyed by fire in 1970.

Crosby's Opera House, meanwhile, began to turn a profit. It hosted major performances and the 1868 Republican National Convention. In 1870, Crosby spent $80,000 to have it renovated. The Crosby Opera House turned on its gaslights for the first time since it began it’s summer long renovation just a few hours before the Great Chicago Fire hit. It was scheduled to open with a performance on October 9, 1871, but as we all know, something else happened on October 8, 1871. The Chicago Fire destroyed the opera house. It was never rebuilt. 

Shortly afterward, Uranus Crosby left Chicago and settled in Massachusetts. 

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