Throwback Thursday: Crosby Opera House, Chicago’s Cultural Awakening

A big talking point when it comes to art and entrepreneurship in Chicago. The short yet prominent life of the Crosby Opera House is a fine early example of Chicago’s ambitious spirit. An enormous building, housing numerous paintings and businesses past a large arched entrance and the buildings architect. One of the only one of its kind at the time before it perished in the Great Chicago Fire, the Crosby Opera House helped set the foundation of art culture in a post civil war Chicago.

Uranus H. Crosby of Massachusetts moved to Chicago on recommendation of his brother Albert, insisting that Chicago was well cultured. Albert Crosby was in Chicago previously to establish liquor and tea trading business, and together the brothers became large wholesale distributors by 1851. However U. H. Crosby felt Chicago lacked any culture his brother promised, only offering brothels, saloons and gambling houses for entertainment. The only theater house around was built by John Blake Rice, burned down shortly after, and rebuilt in 1851; who even then did not favor the opera.

U. H. Crosby’s neighbor had built a playhouse, the McVicker Theater, later becoming a cultural center after Rice Theater retired. Crosby still yearning for a grand scale cultural opera house commisioned William W. Boyington with architect John W. Roberts for the creation of the Crosby Opera House. Being 5 stories, it was occupied by music publishing businesses, piano store, a restaurant, corporate offices, art studio and gallery, and finally the 3,000 seat opera house. The ceiling dome had paintings of Beethoven, Mozart, Auber, Weber, Verdi, and Wagner, the walls with frescoes, 40 ft painting at front of stage, unique carpentry. The whole building would cost 600,000 (9.8 million in 2020) financially devastating Crosby.

Scheduled to open on April 17th, 1865, then grand opening was postponed due the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, forcing a three day delay. Opening with plays like Lucia di LammermoorIl Poliuto, Martha, Norma, Faust, Linda di Chamounix and many more, most performances were assessed by George Upton, a critic for Chicago Tribune. After its brief successes, its activity started to slow down; the demand in opera being over estimated by Crosby, and by May 1866 had devised a lottery.

Having made little profit, the Crosby Opera House Art Association hatched a scheme to raise money and dispose the property through a lottery. Encouraging people they were promoting culture in the city, for $5 a ticket people would receive a chance to win belongings & paintings in the opera house, including the Crosby Opera House itself. Of 210,000 tickets sold, Crosby bought around 25 thousand to secure his ownership of the house. The event was so large most businesses in the city closed to attend the lottery, people from all over the country were rolling in on train. Originally scheduled for Oct. 10 1866, the high ticket demand delayed it to Jan. 21 1867.

A total of 112 paintings were given away, the most expensive ranging from three to twenty thousand dollars ($48k-$325k in 2020), the public bought over one million dollars ($16.2 million in 2020) in chances. U. H. Crosby got to keep two paintings, and the opera house was sold back to him after the ticket winner decided to care for his sick wife in the East; Crosby shortly after returned to Massachusetts. After the lottery, theater activity revived with more opera plays, concerts, receptions, burlesque and even a Republican Nation Convention. By 1871 reconstruction was due and $80,000 was raised to redecorate the venue, with its reopening to be scheduled on Oct. 8th, 1871, with a performance by Theodore Thomas. Unfortunately this was interrupted, as the Great Chicago Fire tore through the city, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless. Crosby returned to salvage some paintings but the opera house was never rebuilt.

There would not be a permanent venue for opera until the Chicago Opera House opened 1885, the Auditorium Theatre would follow in 1889. The Crosby Opera House undoubtedly played a role in the awareness of the fine arts in Chicago. The selfless act to face such financial uncertainty for the sake of the art in itself is inspiring. The Temple of Art that was the Crosby Opera House, inspired an art academy that would later establish the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually Chicago would see the opening of the Civic Opera House in 1929 that towers Wacker Dr. Home to the Lyric Opera of Chicago founded in 1954, one of the leading opera companies in the United States, most definitely shares history in its roots with the Crosby Opera House. Its significance etched in our city’s cultural history.

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