Monday, June 19, 2017

Crosby's Opera House and his lottery scheme, Chicago, Illinois (1865-1871)

The need for 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 Dearborn and State Streets on Chicago's Block 37.

Kinsley's Restaurant, next door to Crosby Opera House, was one of the best known
and most popular places of its kind in the city.
Crosby Opera House Main Entrance on Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois.
The result of this careful and deliberate examination was the plan of the present building, which, without exception, is generally acknowledged as the best-designed structure of the kind in America. It embraces all the conveniences and excellencies of the various similar establishments and a 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 that 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 executed 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 Drama. These are placed on each side of an elaborate dormer window (see illustration above).
Looking West on Washington Street from Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.
Looking West 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 East on Washington Street from State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
These are occupied respectively by Root and Cady, J. Bauer and Company, and W. W. Kimball, like 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 the offices of 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 floor is 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 East 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 everything that passes on the stage. The view is wholly unobstructed.
The dimensions of the auditorium were eighty-six feet 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, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, and Rossini, and the other parts of the ceiling are richly frescoed and molded-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 is 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 in 1864-5 and was ready for occupancy in March of 1865. The cost of the entire building and site was nearly, if not quite, $700,000 ($13,028,000 today), 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. The death of President Abraham Lincoln, which took place on the previous Saturday, caused it to be postponed until Thursday, April 20th, when it was opened by Gran’s Italian Opera troupe, the opera is “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, he made a brief and excellent address in acknowledgment of the compliment. He declined to make a speech, preferring, as he said, to let the building speak for itself. His personal object, as a businessman 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. The Crosby Opera House Art Association was formed to conduct the lottery.
Advertisement in the 1866 Harper's Weekly.
Crosby Opera House $5 Lottery Ticket (today: $90 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.

Rather than think they were gambling, patrons were encouraged to believe they were promoting culture. For a $5 donation, you received an engraving of a famous painting, a lottery ticket and an illustrated catalog of prizes.

The drawing was scheduled for October 11, 1866. Then Crosby announced it would be delayed two months. He said the demand for tickets made him extend the deadline. More likely, he simply hadn’t sold enough of them. In the meantime, the public was invited to visit the Opera House to examine the treasures they might soon possess.

Crosby finally sold a total of 210,000 tickets. The public had bought over $1,000,000 in chances on a $700,000 building.
Lottery Drawing - January 21, 1867.
The drawing, a major event, was held on January 21, 1867. The city came to a halt so that people could see who the big winners were. Crosby had enlisted distinguished citizens to perform the drawing. At precisely 11am, the first ticket-number was pulled out of a drum on stage. Then a prize ticket was pulled out of a second drum and matched with the winner. This went on until 112 pieces of art had been awarded.

Then it was time for the big prize—the Opera House itself. Ticket #58,600 was pulled, but the winner was not present.

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 about whether Abraham Lee even existed.

When Lee returned to Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, 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. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. What a treat to read this captivating account of a lesser-known slice of Chicago history complete with images! Thank you for sharing this history with the public.

  2. Thank you for this article. Abraham H. Lee was my great-great-great grandfather. This has always been a fascinating part of our family history. Your detail on the Opera House fills in much needed information. thank you. Robert Earl Lee III

  3. Hello Robert ! I have been trying to reach you. Please contact me if you read this message ? Thank you !
    Dr TED Fadler

  4. My father was visiting Fort de Chartres on the day of the Brickey house fire. He and some friends were camping on the fort grounds, and saw a glow in the sky. They drove to Prairie du Rocher and watched it burn to the ground, leaving nothing but the fireplace chimneys.

  5. I was just flipping through a book and came across what appears to be a ticket for this. Could be fake, but who knows.

  6. Interesting information. My 2nd great grandfather won a prize and displayed it on his river steamboat. I wonder if a catalog of prizes exists?


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