Crosby's Opera House; Louis Kurz for Jevne & Almini, Lithograph, 1866-67 (ichi-62079)
The history of Crosby’s Opera House was short and troubled, if also colorful and full of ambition. It stood for less than six-and-a-half years on the north side of Washington Street between State and Dearborn. We see it here from a point on State Street, looking northwest. Owner Uranus S. Crosby and architect W. W. Boyington wished to build a theater second to none that would greatly advance the arts in Chicago. To this end, they erected this five-story Italianate palace, topped with a mansard roof. Allegorical statues of Painting, Sculpture, Music, and Commerce (after all, this was Chicago) overlooked patrons and visitors who passed through its lofty entry arch. The first floor was home to several retail businesses, including music publishers Root & Cady (who had moved from Clark Street), the piano store of W. W. Kimball, and the confectioner and restauranteur H. M. Kinsley. The second and third floors were occupied by business offices, while the fourth held an art gallery and the studios of several artists.
In the rear of the building, accessibly by a stairway from the front entrance, was the opera house itself, with seats for three thousand patrons. In the center of its ceiling was a dome encircled by likenesses of Beethoven, Mozart, Auber, Weber, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Gluck, Donizetti, and Rossini, surrounding which were frescoes (painted by employees of Jevne & Almini, the firm published this lithograph and many other similar ones on view here) and gilt molding. In front of the stage and above the orchestra was a forty-foot painting based on seventeenth-century artist Guido Reni’s fresco, Aurora, the original of which was in Rome. On either side of Aurora were allegorical figures of Tragedy and Comedy. The reported cost was over $600,000.
Crosby’s Opera House was beset by bad timing and worse luck throughout its brief life. It was scheduled to open on April 17, 1865, with a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore by Grau’s Italian Opera Troupe, but the premiere was postponed three days because of the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14. Crosby ran into severe business difficulties. As a result of what the Chicago Tribune called his “disastrous failure,” by 1866 he was forced to sell the building. A group of prominent Chicagoans who wished to assist him arranged a sale by lottery. Tickets cost $5 apiece, and approximately 210,000 were purchased by individuals in Chicago and throughout the country, some 25,000 by Crosby himself. The selection of the winner took place in the theater on January 21, 1867, before a packed audience. The excitement in the great room was palpable as the moment of decision approached. The winner was one A. H. Lee, from Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, who sold the building back to Crosby for $200,000, a sum that was considerably less than Crosby's proceeds from the lottery, so he both made money and got to keep his beloved opera house.
Crosby's luck now seemed to have turned for the better. By early 1871 he made plans for a major renovation of the theater, which took place that summer. The much anticipated re-opening was scheduled for October 9, with a concert led by maestro Theodore Thomas. But the Great Chicago Fire proved to be the final performer at Crosby’s, bringing down the house before Thomas could raise his baton.
Chicago Block 37, on which Crosby's Opera House was located, continued to be a star-crossed site. In 1989 the city demolished the deteriorated properties then on the block, and, only after almost twenty years of discussions, disputes, and deals that fell through, it has only recently been redeveloped. During a portion the period when Block 37's fate was in limbo, however, it hosted a summer outdoor art studio for Chicago public school students—named gallery37—and a skating rink during the winter.
View of Crosby's Opera House before the Fire; Stereograph, ca. 1871 (ichi-64360)
This stereograph of Crosby's Opera House looks east along Washington Street. The tall steeple is that of the Second Presbyterian Church, which was built at Washington Street and Wabash Avenue in 1852. Its architect was James Renwick, the designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and of “The Castle,” the original building of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Like Crosby’s Opera House, it was lost in the fire. Unlike Crosby’s, it was rebuilt, though not in the same place. It moved to its current site at 1936 South Michigan, close to the Prairie Avenue neighborhood where several of its wealthy parishioners lived.
Chicago in Flames--Burning of the Chamber of Commerce and the Crosby Opera House; from Harper's Weekly, October 28, 1871 (ichi-63127)
Driven by a fierce wind from the southwest, flames shoot out of the Chamber of Commerce and Crosby's Opera House as Chicagoans flee for their lives.
Ruins of Crosby's Opera House; Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-02767)
All that remained of the newly-refurbished theater that was to re-open Monday, October 9, was this pile of rubble.