8.9. THE CHICAGO OPERA HOUSE

Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block, Chicago, SW corner of Clark and Washington, 1884. (Online)

In the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel had reworked James Bogardus’ technique of using an iron frame to support its masonry curtain wall in order to support Bartholdi’s copper curtain wall. The point here is that sheathing an iron frame in a non-loadbearing envelope (be it masonry or metal or glass-the cast iron front) had been in use since 1855 (earlier if we count the cast iron front).  What Chicago architects were now faced with was the challenge to reintroducing this technique following the 1871/74 fires into the exterior of a skyscraper while fireproofing the iron members.  Apparently, Boyington had been the first to accomplish this in Chicago in the Trading Floor of the Board of Trade by encasing the iron columns with brick and stone.

As the erection of the iron columns in the Board of Trade was underway, the threat of the impending height limitation produced a building permit for the Chicago Opera House Block, the second of the large buildings granted a building permit during the first week March 1884.  Plans for the project were first revealed in January, but the threat of the height limit had forced the project’s investors to secure a permit before the design had been completed.  The site chosen by the investors, a joint stock company led by Charles Henrotin, one of the founders of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and real estate magnate William D. Kerfoot, the southwest corner of Clark and Washington had been obtained through a lease from Ferdinand Peck.  The site was where the original extension of the old Chamber of Commerce was to have been built in 1880, until the Board of Trade decided to erect its own building on Jackson.  As was the case with the Central Music Hall, the site they had chosen to build on was ideal as it was served by all three of the city’s cable car lines.

Map of the Loop, 1884. (Author’s collection)

Their timing was intimately connected with the final completion of the new Cook County/City Hall scheduled for completion in January 1885.  This lot across the street from City Hall would provide convenient access for those who needed an office close to the city’s leaders who would be finally moving from their “temporary” post-fire location in the south back to their traditional location on the courthouse square in the “north end” of the business district.  Such market potential led the Opera House’s leaders to select this site because, as had been the case with Central Music Hall, the inclusion of office space was still an economic necessity for the financial support of an auditorium of this size in Chicago’s business district.  I will discuss the events that led up to and the reasons for the erection of a new opera house in Chicago in the next chapter, one of these being the inadequacy of the four-year old Central Music Hall located only two blocks to the east.  

8.10. GEORGE A. FULLER, HENRY I. COBB AND CHARLES S. FROST: PEABODY & STEARNS “COMES” TO CHICAGO

If we are to believe Louis Sullivan’s claim in his Autobiography of an Idea (p. 287-89), that in the early eighteen eighties Adler & Sullivan were equal in reputation and practice to Burnham & Root, than one would have thought that this project that incorporated a large auditorium in addition to a ten-story skyscraper would have been made in heaven for Adler & Sullivan.  But Sullivan’s claim was disingenuous for although Adler & Sullivan had by this time, in addition to the Central Music Hall and the remodeling of the Exposition Building for the Chicago Music Festival, also completed the successful remodeling/updating of three of Chicago’s largest theaters, and were at this precise moment engaged in remodeling a fourth, (that we will review in the next chapter), and Sullivan had also begun to make a name for himself as a designer of interior ornamentation by early 1884, they had yet to design a tall speculative office building, contrary to Sullivan’s assertion late in life. (Their first commission to design a skyscraper, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, was still over six years in the future.)  Instead, Henrotin and Kerfoot commissioned the relatively inexperienced, but as we will learn, “well-connected” firm of Henry I. Cobb and Charles S. Frost, who had never designed a performance space to design what was planned to be Chicago’s largest auditorium.  

Peabody & Stearns (George A. Fuller), United Bank Building, New York, 1880. (Online)

Henry Ives Cobb had been born into a Boston patrician family in 1859.  He had studied civil engineering at Harvard and architecture and mechanical engineering at MIT.  He had then been hired in 1880 by the local firm, Peabody & Stearns, where he befriended Charles Sumner Frost, who had also studied architecture at MIT.  Cobb’s older brother Albert had moved to Chicago a number of years earlier, where he had joined the ranks of Chicago’s northside “upper crust” (that included Potter Palmer, Charles Henrotin, and William Kerfoot) in the city’s Union Club.  In September 1881, Albert informed his brother back home that the club was sponsoring a design competition for a new building to be erected across from Washington Square.  The club’s members had been goaded into erecting a new building by the southside’s Calumet Club (that included Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman) who had recently announced that it was going to build a new building designed by Burnham & Root (see Sec. 6.9).  The twenty-two year-old Cobb had submitted a Richardsonesque design that managed to be picked by the competition committee in December 1881 over one by Root that had been the early favorite.  (Cobb, in addition to his brother, may also have had a leg up on the competition as his former Peabody & Stearns associate, George A. Fuller, who had designed and supervised the construction of the recently completed Union Club building in New York on 39th St., had already moved to Chicago the previous year in search of “greener fields.”)

Peabody & Stearns (George A. Fuller), Union League Club, New York, 1879. (Online)
Burnham & Root, Calumet Club Building, Chicago, NE corner of Michigan Ave. and 20th St.,1881. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

Chicago’s architectural history was about to receive another influence from Boston (adding to the effects that the Brooks brothers and H.H. Richardson were having on the city’s buildings in addition to the effects that the railroads owned by Bostonians were having on the city’s urban structure). I listed Fuller first in the title because I think he had a greater immediate impact on Chicago’s architecture than did Cobb & Frost. I last discussed Fuller in Sec. 5.12. where as Peabody & Stearns’ partner in charge of their New York office, he had just finished putting the final touches on the United Bank Building. Our interest in Fuller is that he was an early advocate for the use of steel in building construction that was evidenced by his use of exposed iron columns in the storefronts of the Bank building.

George Fuller, United Bank Building. Detail of iron columns used in the storefront along Wall Street. The iron column is visible immediately to the left of the telegraph pole. Note that he did not repeat this detail on the wall to the left. (Online)

Fuller had been born in 1851 in nearby Worcester, MA, and had learned construction “in the field” before he briefly had some architectural training at MIT, then commonly referred to as “Boston Tech,” prior to his finding a post with Peabody & Stearns in 1872. He was known as having a natural instinct with construction-related issues. Actually, Fuller was the senior of the three, being five years older than Frost and eight years older than Cobb. Fuller left New York in late 1880 to form a firm with another former Bostonian who had already relocated to Chicago, C. Everett Clark Fuller to form Clark & Fuller.  

Cobb & Frost, Union Club, southwest corner of Dearborn and Washington Place, 1881. (Wolner, Cobb)

Having won the Chicago Union Club competition, Cobb decided to cast his lot with Chicago and moved there in early 1882, having convinced his friend Frost to join him in a new firm.  They then arranged that Fuller should have the construction contract for the Club. Cobb followed his brother’s lead in joining the Union Club, where, within three months he had bagged one of the city’s most prestigious and expensive commissions, Potter and Bertha Palmer’s new mansion on Lake Shore Drive.

8.11. POTTER PALMER BUYS UP AND MOVES TO LAKE SHORE DRIVE

Palmer, who had become the city’s wealthiest man following the death of William Ogden in 1877, had hired Cobb & Frost to design his new mansion that was to be located in what Palmer had secretly planned to make the city’s newest fashionable residential area, Lake Shore Drive on the North Side of the river.  As he had done some twenty years earlier with moving the city’s prime retail area from Lake to State Street, Palmer now planned to pull off a similar real estate coup by moving Chicago’s high society from Prairie Avenue on the South Side to Lake Shore Drive in the north.  (This was not as radical as some historians make it out to be, as I have shown that many of Chicago’s elite, such as Ogden and his associates, had always resided in the North Division since the founding of the city.)  Over the period that stretched from 1875, when the North Parks commissioners had first laid out Lake Shore Drive as a carriageway to link downtown to Lincoln Park, until the newspapers broke the story in April 1882, while Palmer and his wife resided in the Palmer House, he was quietly purchasing lots, in a manner similar to how he had bought State Street: along the planned thoroughfare, assembling a two-block wide strip of real estate along the lake that ran from Lincoln Park south to Bellevue Place.

View looking south down Lake Shore Drive, from Burton Place. ca. 1890. (Wolner, Cobb)

These properties had the same view and access to Lake Michigan as did Michigan and Prairie Avenues in the south, with one important exception: no trains would disturb the peace or spoil the view from these new lakefront palaces, because Ogden, whose house had been east of the North Branch, had built the C&NW tracks to Wisconsin to the west of the North Branch of the river.

Cobb & Frost, Potter Palmer Residence, Lake Shore Drive, between Schiller and Banks, 1882. (Wolner, Cobb)

Cobb & Frost provided, with obvious “assistance” from their clients, a design for the block on Lake Shore Drive between Schiller, Banks, and Astor, in the style they called Normanesque and “English battlements style.” Like the Palmer House, the mansion’s design, inside and out, reflected the Palmers’ association with “good taste” with copious consumption, or to put it bluntly, “the more, the better.” (I used the term “parvenu” earlier when I discussed Palmer’s similar choice of materials in the second Palmer House: see Vol. One.) While one could explain the exterior within the context of Chicago’s growing class conflict, as providing good defense for its defenders with the crenellations ringing the building’s perimeter, the interior in which each room was thoroughly decorated in a different style, simply expressed the fact that the city’s wealthiest couple had enough money to do this. (I have to believe that this house was a direct response to the new William K. Vanderbilt mansion along Vanderbilt row on Fifth Avenue. Alva Vanderbilt, the new fashion-setter in New York and Newport, whom it is obvious that Bertha Palmer saw as her equal, had spent over $3 million in recently completing the most expensive house to date in the country.  For comparison, Potter Palmer had lavished $3.2 million constructing the post-fire Palmer House hotel.  I will review this project in the next chapter.)

Richard Morris Hunt, William K. Vanderbilt residence, New York, 1879. (Online)

FURTHER READING:

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Wolner, Edward W., Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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