Civic Opera House History

Civic Opera House

The world-renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago performs in one of North America's most beautiful opera houses, the Civic Opera House, at 20 North Wacker Drive. The opera house was the vision of utility magnate Samuel Insull (1859-1938), a populist 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 Louis B. Sullivan's Auditorium Building on South Michigan Avenue as the home of the Chicago Civic Opera--one that would be democratic in scope, and would be housed in and supported by a commercial office building. He mandated five requisites for the new opera house: safety, excellent sight lines, comfortable seating, gracious surroundings, and premium acoustics.

The design team chosen by Insull, the Chicago 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 famous for designing the Field Museum of Natural History, the Wrigley Building on North Michigan Avenue, and the Continental Illinois Bank Building on South LaSalle Street. In the 1930s the firm created the massive Merchandise Mart Building, also on the Chicago River.

From its opening on Nov. 4, 1929 (just six days after the stock-market crash) until Lyric Opera of Chicago was founded in 1954 (as Lyric Theatre), the Civic Opera House was home to the Chicago Civic Opera, Chicago Grand Opera Company, Chicago City Opera Company and Chicago Opera Company. Over the years the Civic Opera House has also hosted visiting opera and dance companies, as well as touring operettas, musical shows, and a great number of orchestral, dance, and vocal concerts. 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 considerable time it also served as a television studio.

The Civic Opera Building is a majestic limestone skyscraper with a 45-story office tower and two 22-story wings. Shaped like a gigantic throne facing the Chicago River between Washington and Madison streets, it was completed after just 22 months of planning and construction. The auditorium and its backstage areas occupy approximately one-third of the total space of the building. The distinguishing feature on the Wacker Drive side of the Civic Opera Building is the colonnaded portico that runs the entire length of the building. At the south end, large bronze doors open onto the grand foyer of the Civic Opera House, whose gilt cornices glitter beneath the sparkling lights of Austrian crystal chandeliers and elaborately stenciled ceilings. The magnificent space features a floor and wainscoting of pink and gray Tennessee marble, and fluted Roman travertine columns and pilasters. The 40-foot-high columns are topped with carved capitals covered in gold leaf. In early 1994 the space was named the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer in honor of major benefactors. An imposing grand double staircase leads to the mezzanine foyer, where there are thirty-one boxes. Above this box level are two more balconies, each with 800 seats. The Civic Opera House seats 3,563.

The decorative character of the entire building is a hybrid of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Comedy-tragedy masks and cornucopia of instruments abound as playful ornaments around entrances, inspired by the Paris Opera House designed by Jean-Louis-Charles Garnier. The famous painted fire curtain (depicting the parade scene from Aida) and the interior decoration details of the Civic Opera House were created by American artist Jules Guerin in a palette of salmon pinks, roses, olives, golds and bronzes.

In 1993, Lyric Opera of Chicago purchased all of the theater and backstage space in the Civic Opera Building. Previously Lyric Opera had rented the auditorium and backstage areas. A massive $100-million renovation of the backstage area commenced in 1993, and continued during Lyric's off-seasons (mid-March through early September) through 1996. The improvements made during this project allow Lyric Opera to continue producing world-class opera well into the 21st century. The purchase and renovation was made possible by Lyric's $100-million "Building on Greatness" capital campaign. The Lyric Opera of Chicago/Chicago Symphony Orchestra Facilities Fund helped launch Lyric's campaign with a $50 million commitment.

The renovation includes the creation of a large rehearsal hall that duplicates the dimensions of the mainstage; the creation of a stage-level scenery handling area that has ended Lyric's need to often store valuable sets on city sidewalks; the replacement of outdated stage rigging and lighting; updating of electrical and mechanical systems; installation of new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems throughout the backstage areas and in the Civic Opera House itself; improved and expanded patron restrooms; updating of facilities for persons with disabilities; redesign of the mezzanine lobby; and the addition and renovation of dressing rooms, locker space and lounges for artists, orchestra, chorus, ballet and stagehands, as well as the renovation of backstage office space for production and rehearsal personnel. These improvements were made during the first three phases of the renovation.

The final phase took place between early April and early August of 1996. All 3,563 seats and carpeting were removed from the auditorium. As soon as the seats were out, 20,000 square feet of scaffolding went upseven stories high — so that artisans could clean and completely repaint the auditorium (including elaborate stenciling). The theater had never been fully repainted since it opened in 1929 — just patched and touched up as needed over the years. During the summer of 1996 more than 30 highly skilled artisans from around the country worked in the Civic Opera House 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. The painters also hand-stenciled and hand-detailed the exquisite ornamentation that adorns the Civic Opera House ceilings — in a dozen colors, no less.

Every seat in the auditorium was beautifully refurbished for the first time since 1929. The metal portions were repainted and the wood arms were refinished; the upholstery, seat and back of each chair were replaced. 6,000 square yards of new deep-red carpeting were installed in the theater and lobbies of the Civic Opera House. The 31 boxes on the mezzanine level were rebuilt and enlarged by 18 inches. A new mainstage curtain was installed, made of 580 yards of heavy-weight wool velour and silk fringe to replicate the original 1929 curtain. Each side of the curtain weighs approximately 500 pounds; the hung dimensions are 64 x 45 feet. All the bronze decorative features and railings in the Civic Opera House were polished to a just-like-new sheen. The beautiful travertine marble was thoroughly cleaned.

Backstage, a 40-foot-high, 40,000-pound soundproof door was installed to acoustically separate the scenery handling area from the mainstage. During the renovation 32 miles of new rope and cable were installed backstage to update the scenery rigging system. Additionally, 170 miles of electrical wiring and 38 miles of electrical conduit were installed throughout the Civic Opera House.

Top