The Civic Opera Building

The Civic Opera Building

The world-renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago performs in one of North America’s finest opera houses, the Civic Opera Building. The opera house was a vision of Samuel Insull (1859-1938), a local billionaire known as “the Prince of Electricity.” Insull, the president of the Chicago Civic Opera Association, wanted to erect a new opera house to replace the Auditorium Building on South Michigan Avenue as the home of the Chicago Civic Opera – one that would be housed in and supported by a commercial office building. He also demanded five requisites for the new opera house: safety, excellent sight lines, comfortable seating, gracious surroundings, and world-class acoustics.

The Civic Opera Building is a limestone skyscraper with a 45-story office tower and two 22-story wings. The mixed-use structure houses both a 3,563-seat auditorium and more than half a million square feet of office and retail space. Its architecture clearly expresses its joint role as a civic monument to culture and commerce. The Civic Opera Building faces the Chicago River between Washington and Madison streets, and was completed after just 22 months of planning and construction. It is built in the shape of a massive throne, facing west. It is reputed that Insull had instructed the designers to do this so he could turn his back not only on City Hall (who had all but stolen his electricity utility, bungling it in the process), but New York and the “big business” it signified. Some even say that Insull had promised to return to his building as a ghost and take his seat on the throne.

The building is a combination of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Inspired by the Paris Opera House, comedy-tragedy masks and a cornucopia of instruments decorate the entrances. The design team Insull chose (Chicago’s architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White) wanted the Civic Opera Building to symbolize “the spirit of a community which is still youthful and not much hampered by traditions.” The firm was already well-known for designing the Field Museum, the Wrigley Building, and the Continental Illinois Bank Building on South LaSalle Street. It later went on to design the Merchandise Mart Building in the 1930s.

From its opening on Nov. 4, 1929 (just six days after the stock-market crash) until the Lyric Opera of Chicago was founded in 1954 (as Lyric Theatre), the Civic Opera Building was home to quite a few: the Chicago Civic Opera, Chicago Grand Opera Company, Chicago City Opera Company, and Chicago Opera Company. The adjoining Civic Theatre, at the north end of the block-long building, was used to present plays (including the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie), dance performances, and films; for a while it even served as a television studio.

A $100-million renovation of the backstage area began in 1993, and continued through 1996. During the renovation, all 3,563 seats and carpeting were removed from the auditorium, and 20,000 square feet of scaffolding went up (seven stories high!) to allow cleaning and painting of the auditorium. The theater had never been fully repainted since it opened in 1929. During the summer of 1996 more than 30 artisans from around the country worked in the Civic Opera Building six days a week, 10 hours a day, applying 2,000 gallons of gold paint to the elegant ornamentation of the auditorium, Rice Grand Foyer, and all lobbies.

6,000 square yards of new deep-red carpeting were installed in the theater and lobbies and a mainstage curtain was added. The curtain is made of 580 yards of heavyweight wool velour and silk fringe to replicate the 1929 original. Each side of the curtain weighs approximately 500 pounds, and has an area of 64 x 45 feet. Backstage, a 40-foot-high, 40,000-pound soundproof door was installed to acoustically separate the scenery handling area from the mainstage. Thirty-two miles of new rope and cable were installed to update the scenery rigging system. Additionally, 170 miles of electrical wiring and 38 miles of electrical conduit were installed throughout the Civic Opera Building. These renovations have reestablished the Civic Opera Building as one of the finest structures in Chicago.