While Cincinnati’s Music Hall was under construction, Theodore Thomas had continued to take his orchestra on national tours, including Chicago. During the post-fire period of 1872-5, the Thomas Orchestra’s tours of Chicago had been organized by George B. Carpenter, a young promoter who was committed to offering residents of post-fire Chicago entertainment and education through a series of concerts and lectures staged in venues on the West and South Divisions of the city that had survived the fire, but had become frustrated with the small size of the available halls. Following Thomas’ first post-fire Chicago visit in 1872, that had come after Maria Nichols had first broached her plan for the Cincinnati May Festival to Thomas, Carpenter began to conceive of an appropriate Chicago response.
Early in 1873, he began to concentrate on the southeast corner of State and Randolph as a potential site for his project as it was central to all three of the city’s divisions as all three horse-drawn streetcar lines that linked these sections to the business district intersected at this point.
Carpenter had been an early supporter of the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, during which time he had befriended Nathaniel K. Fairbank, who was known as one of Chicago’s “passionate lovers of music.” Carpenter and Fairbank were members of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Near North side, whose pastor, the Rev. David Swing was the one of the city’s leading religious figures, known for his liberal or “progressive” theology. By the spring of 1874, his liberal sermons had caught the attention of denominational leaders who arraigned Swing on the charge of heresy. Although he was eventually acquitted, Swing resigned his pulpit in October 1875, to the utter distress of his congregation. This was no ordinary congregation, however, as it counted among its membership the likes of Carpenter, Fairbank, Joseph Medill, and Wirt Dexter, the leaders of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, who had also conceived the Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, and were equally motivated to embark upon their second civic project. To this august body we need to add the name another member of this activist congregation that we now first encounter, Ferdinand W. Peck.
Peck had been born in Chicago in 1845, the son of Philip F. W. Peck, one of the city’s original real estate speculators, who had amassed his real estate fortune by buying and holding downtown lots, which he had begun before Chicago had even been incorporated. Ferdinand had taken over control of the management of his father’s extensive real estate holdings following his death only ten days after the 1871 fire, following a long illness. At the time that he took over these vast holdings he was all of twenty-three years old. Having gained his wealth through investments, and not in business, Peck appears to have allowed himself to have developed an empathy for the working class that his peers, who were the employers of this class, did not whole-heartedly share. This eventually manifested itself in his commitment to give back to the less fortunate of Chicago. (In 1890, Peck’s wealth was listed as being tied with that of Potter Palmer as the fourth richest man in Chicago with $10,000,000, following Marshall Field, Philip D. Armour, and George M. Pullman.) Prior to his involvement with the Central Music Hall, he had been a major player in the founding of the Chicago Athenaeum in May 1874 as an institution, inspired by the New York’s Cooper Union, dedicated to the education of all those, male and female, who wanted to better themselves.
Swing’s congregation reacted to his resignation by drafting a document whereby they would succeed from the Presbyterian Church and follow his lead, in a new, non-denominational “Central Church.” Fifty of his most ardent supporters, including all those named above, signed the document which committed them to moving to a more central location in the business district. There were two primary reasons for their choice of this location. First, these people felt that religion needed to reappear in the central heart of the city, which had all but disappeared as a result of the destruction of all the churches (and the corresponding sale of the property by the congregations) in the business district by the 1871 fire, in order to be available to the thousands of young, unchurched men who now lived downtown. Second, politically, these fifty were some of the city’s leading capitalists, and they wanted to provide the middle class with an alternative to the growing Socialists’ agenda and activities in Chicago. Swing’s first service with his newly-formed Central Church took place within two months of his resignation in McVicker’s Theater in early December 1875.
Early in 1876, Carpenter and Fairbank, who had in early 1875, only months before Cincinnati’s planned Second May Festival, engaged the services of architects Burling & Adler to design their project, now formally commissioned them to design the planned project as an auditorium that could function both as a congregational church and as a music hall. However, while Cincinnati’s economy was independent of East Coast venture capital and, therefore, was pushing ahead with the construction of Music Hall, 1876 marked the low point of the depression and Carpenter and Fairbank had to shelve their plans until the economy began to show signs of a rebound. Meanwhile, Carpenter was still managing the Thomas Orchestra’s visits to Chicago, trying, albeit seemingly in vain, to compete with Cincinnati for Thomas’s long-term commitment. Prior to the opening of Cincinnati’s Music Hall, Carpenter had offered Thomas a six-week long contract for a series of concerts during June and July of 1877 that were called “Chicago Summer Nights Concerts.”
The Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building was decorated for this series as a German Bierhalle:
“The [north] end where the concerts were given was made cheerful by lights and potted plants, and many evergreen trees in tubs formed a little grove in the rear, where groups of friends sat at small tables, where the men could smoke or, in the intermissions, enjoy a glass of beer. There were no fixed or even reserved seats in any part of the building, and people sat where they pleased, or moved the chairs into little groups to suit themselves… At either side of the auditorium were broad arcades, large enough for many thousands of people to promenade in without crowding, and, in order to allow them to continue, without interruption, around the hall, the orchestra stage built some distance out from the end of the building.”
Thomas himself had designed a great wooden sounding-board to be located directly over his orchestra in order to push the sound out and into the huge space of the Expo Building. After a number of experiments with its size, thickness, and angle of slope, Thomas eventually was quite satisfied with its function. The first two weeks of the series had been a complete success, but once again, events beyond his control conspired to deny him success in Chicago.
Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Thomas, Rose Fay. Memoirs of Theodore Thomas. New York: Moffat, Yard, and Co., 1911.
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