Most Chicagoans are familiar with the Lyric Opera, but the so-called Lyric Opera House is really the Civic Opera House designed by architectural firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, which was also responsible for the design of the Merchandise Mart, the old Post Office, the Wrigley Building, the Shedd Aquarium, and Union Station. The firm was the successor to the legendary Daniel Burnham's firm.
The Lyric Opera building opened on November 4, 1929, but the Civic Opera Company inaugurated its new home and season with a world premiere of Camille, a specially commissioned opera by 28-year old Chicago composer Hamilton Forrest that has never been publicly performed since its premiere. It is based on Alexander Duma's La Dame aux Camellias. (Source: Opera Quarterly (1995), Edward Hagelin Pearson, The Other Traviata Hamilton Forrest's Camille).
The structure, the back of which abuts the Chicago River, was developed by Samuel Insull, a British businessman who had his hands in utilities, railroads, and radio stations. At one point he controlled 5,000 utilities in 32 states, plus several electrified railroads serving Chicago, some of which are still in operation (e.g., the South Shore line).
Insull came to the United States to help Thomas Edison with his finances, but was subsequently replaced by J. P. Morgan, according to a 2006 article in the New York Times. Business reporter Roger Lowenstein draws parallels between Insull's activities and those who headed Enron, which is certainly not a desirable comparison. Following the stock market crash, Insull's debt-laden holding company structure collapsed. Facing 600,000 presumably angry investors, he fled to Greece, but returned to the U.S. to face a prosecution that eventually resulted in his acquittal.
Insull played an instrumental role in integrating the power grid in the United States. Moreover, he also promoted electric appliances, with his ads proclaiming that the new technology would free women from household chores--Suffragette City.
In 1938, Insull died while in the Paris Metro. The stairs were too much for his heart, but he could no longer afford better means of transport.
Orson Welles has acknowledged that Charles Foster Kane, aka Citizen Kane, was based in part on Insull, writing, "It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story." In the film, Kane builds an opera house so that his wife can perform as an opera singer. The Civic Opera House inspired the theatre depicted in the film. Rumor has it that Insull built the Civic Opera House for his wife, Gladys Wallis, who could not get a job with New York's Metropolitan Opera.
The Civic Opera House is actually one of two (or, depending on how you look at it, four) buildings, which explains why the lower portion of the building is at an angle to the 45-story central tower know as the Civic Opera Building. The central structure is flanked by two 22-story structures. From the upper-Wacker street side, the structures appear to be one building.
Copyright 2016, Jack B. Siegel. All Rights Reserved