May 02, 2024

Clearly Better

By David Zivan

An extraordinarily generous gift to the house makes us feel all warm inside.

It may be of interest, at the start, to note that this complex project has numerous names: The Crowe Gift. The Glass Curtain. The Air Lock. There is a former candy store involved, and something called sidelights, and a magnetic-bearing chiller. But a succinct assessment from Lawrence DelPilar perhaps sums it up best. 

“Because it’s about climate control, it may sound a little boring,” notes DelPilar, Lyric’s Senior Director of Development for Principal Gifts. “But it isn’t, because when you’re down in the lobby in the dead of winter, it’s a wind tunnel. And it’s not going to be like that anymore.” 

Thanks to an exceptional donation from longtime patrons John “Jack” V. Crowe and Margaret Ann “Peggy” Crowe, the climate issues which have impacted the entryway of Lyric for nearly a century will be a thing of the past.

The transformation of the Nancy W. Knowles Lobby is one of the more visible projects at the opera house in recent years. Three glass walls — two sealing the doorways on the north side of the space, and the enormous compound panel, separating the lobby from the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer — were installed in the summer of 2023. Along with a new ventilation system, the changes will serve to control and pressurize the climate inside the well-traveled entryway. 

Longtime patrons of Lyric will recall ticket-takers bundled in their winter coats, inside the building; they should now be able to hang them up when they report for duty. Perhaps most remarkably, the taming of the elements will be achieved without interrupting the experience of passing into the glittering height of the foyer. Above all, entering the opera house will feel like escaping from the elements.

“It’s going to have a significant effect on our patrons,” says John Yelen, Senior Director of Facilities for Lyric. “Coming into the building, this will make people feel comfortable immediately.”

Mock up photo of what the lobby would look like once the glass doors were constructed.

“The problem,” notes Drew Landmesser, Lyric’s recently retired Chief Operating Officer and Deputy General Director, “was the outside. That aspect of Chicago that likes to fool with us. In winter, the wind outside is just too strong. You can’t fight it back.”

 Still, over the years, the building’s caretakers have tried. In the 1990s, new ventilation was added to the outer breezeway entrance along Wacker Drive. It didn’t help much. A decade ago, the company added portable heaters, which made the entryway sound like an airport. More than once, the lobby and the auditorium were preheated, as if preparing to receive a loaf of bread. 

But during the period known throughout the company as “rush hour” — the 30 minutes or so before curtain — the outer doors were mostly open and, inside, everything would cool off, sometimes for the rest of the evening. The large arched entry into the grand foyer, and the two doors leading to the house stairs on the east side of the building, leaked heat — or rather, allowed the cold in. The glass wall project, Landmesser notes, is “a more radical approach of looking at these large openings.” 

The most apparent part of the project is the custom set of glass panels between the foyer and the lobby. Made of ½-inch thick glass fabricated by Ohio’s Oldcastle Perrysburg company, the 14-feet high by 20-feet wide installation required exceptional skill to fit into the curved archway. And yet the two smaller doorways in the lobby, fabricated in Michigan by the Glass & Metal Craft company, were the larger challenge. 

“The doors on the north are actually more complicated than the doors on the west. Those may look like flat, rectangular openings, but they’re not,” says Len Koroski, Principal at the Goettsch Partners firm, and the architect of record on the project. “The lobby is very tricky in terms of its slopes and cross slopes, and its structural conditions. We’re not putting in square doors; we’re putting in rhombus doors.” 

“The part that people don’t see is the important part,” adds Landmesser. “Isn’t that how it always is?”

All the sconces and chandeliers in the space were carefully removed, each piece of glass getting individually bubble-wrapped, and the fixtures were entirely rewired. (Last winter, virtually unseen, Lyric’s technical team updated all the sconces in the main foyer — redoing the wireless routers used by the ticket scanners, while they were at it. The project list is virtually endless.) In a small room along Madison Street, once home to a kiosk that sold candy to commuters, an independent air handler system has been installed. “A lot of duct work has been rerouted underneath the lobby,” notes Yelen. “In order to maintain the balance of the room, they changed some returns to supplies, and some supplies to returns.”

 “All historic buildings have to adapt and change with the times,” notes Koroski. “It’s our job to usher in that change in a fashion that’s respectful, and without visual Impact.”

As a gift that will benefit many generations to come, the glass curtain seems a marvelously appropriate way to honor the Crowe family’s longtime relationship with the company. Jack and Peggy Crowe first formally joined the Lyric family in 1992, when they became subscribers. Jack, who passed away in 2017, served on Lyric’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2007. His love for the art form started early, when his mother would play him recordings of Enrico Caruso; the fifth-floor foyer of the opera house is named for her. Over the years, the couple — particular admirers of Puccini — sponsored several productions and other large-scale projects. “Jack brought me to the opera,” Peggy remarked not long ago. “It was our thing.” 

One of the couple’s daughters, Mimi Crowe Mitchell, and her husband, Todd, caught the opera bug as well. They first subscribed to Lyric in the 2007/08 Season, when she joined the Women’s Board. Among other leadership roles with that group, she served as President from 2014 to 2017, then joined the full Board of Directors.

As part of the wedding celebrations for one of her granddaughters (Mimi’s daughter, Sarah), Peggy hosted a party at her home in Lake Forest, where the bride and groom were serenaded with La Boheme excerpts sung  under a candlelit canopy of trees by artists from The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center. It goes without saying that Lyric is woven into the family’s life.

The Lyric Opera staff hard at work as they install the new glass curtain.

The building that houses the Lyric Opera of Chicago was completed in 1929, on a design by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the leading architects of the city’s post-Fire construction boom; from 1912 to 1936, the company was responsible for landmarks such as the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the former central Chicago post office.

“Lyric as a building is wonderful especially in the consistency of ornament and design intent you see throughout the building,” says Koroski. “You often see the suggestion of musical instruments. You see the theatrical masks. You see the smallest detail on a doorknob, the same leaf pattern that exists in the cast iron surrounding the entrance, and at the cornice at the top of the building.” 

The glass wall project is a piece — a very large piece, it may be said — of an enormous ongoing initiative to tend to the health of the house itself and to the well-being of its patrons. The complete seating overhaul completed before the 2021/22 Season was part of this journey, and there is more to come. Restrooms throughout the building are going to improve, as will the box seating. There will be greater accessibility throughout the house, and improved lighting.

 For the moment, though, we may all take a moment to bask in the comfort of this beautiful, useful upgrade — a clear improvement.