8.12. THE OPERA HOUSE BLOCK

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

Fellow Union League Club members Charles Henrotin and William Kerfoot simply followed the Palmers’ lead by hiring their architect for the Opera House Block from the “bluebloods” within the Club’s membership list.  While Cobb & Frost had been given superb reviews for their design of the Union Club and the Palmers’ mansion, both of these commissions were of a “residential” scale.  This project to design the city’s largest auditorium and surround it with a ten-story office building, however, was completely “out of their league.”  Besides the snobbishness of hiring a fellow club member, Henrotin and Kerfoot may have been also convinced that the young architects could “do it” when reminded that Fuller had been Peabody & Stearns’ managing partner who had designed the nine-story United Bank Building in New York.  Clark & Fuller were awarded the construction contract for the ten-story Opera Block.  

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

Given the dimensions of the site (107’ along Washington and 187’ along Clark), Cobb & Frost placed the 2300 seat auditorium in the interior of the site, running north to south with the stagehouse on the south side of the lot. They then lined the two street fronts with stores on the first two floors that were then topped with an eight-storied office slab on the two street fronts.

Cobb and Frost, Chicago Opera House Block. Left: View of Theater House within the confines of the office slabs. The stage house with its gable roof is visible at the back of the site. (Rand-McNally, View #19); Right: Rear walls’ elevations. It appears that the rhythm of the windows in the Clark St. slab is the same as that in the street elevations. (Art Institute of Chicago)

While the Clark St. slab had only sufficient dimension for a single-loaded corridor, the Washington St. slab appeared to be double-loaded (the 78’ long dimension of the auditorium combined with a 60’ width office plan would had left about 50’ for the stage). Access to the auditorium’s lobby was provided by the theater’s famous illuminated canopy on Washington Street.

Cobb and Frost, Chicago Opera House, Detail of exposed iron framing in the first two floors. (Siry, Auditorium)

The enigma of this building continues to be whether or not its exterior walls were constructed with an iron skeleton frame (historians Joseph Siry and Edward Wolner say it was, Thomas Leslie says it was not).  At first glance, this was most decisively the largest building yet erected in Chicago that had a pier-and-spandrel elevation.  With exception of the soon-to-be-gratuitous arcade in the eighth floor, the elevations were a rational expression of a column-and-beam system.  We can compare the Insurance Exchange to the Opera House to see the visual/architectonic difference between a wall-with-windows vs. a pier-and-spandrel elevational concept (the wall has less glass and a greater horizontal accent due to the continuity of the wall across the surface).  The comparison also reveals that the spandrel depth in the Opera House was minimized, resulting in larger window openings that those in the Insurance Exchange. 

It was the lower two floors of the Opera House Block that aroused the interest of the local building community and still leads the historian today to the question of iron framing in the upper floors.  To accommodate the stores on the ground floor by creating windows as large as possible, Cobb and Frost used iron columns and beams in the exterior of the two street fronts to support the upper eight floors of loadbearing masonry.

Fuller had already used this detail in the United Bank Building and more than likely recommended its reuse. The reason for its use was logical:  the smaller iron column allowed the windows to be larger, thereby providing as much daylight as possible. This was a great benefit because the back of the stores in these two floors was a solid masonry wall needed to provide a fireproof separation between these and the theater. The smaller iron cross-sections also took up less floor space, thereby creating more floor area to be charged in the rental agreement. 

Cobb & Frost, Opera House Block. Plans of Main Floor and Balcony of the House. Note the solid masonry wall at the back of the balcony that would have continued around to the left to also separate the theater from the Clark St. stores. (Siry, Auditorium)

Curiously, after all the agitation over the past decade over the use of exposed iron structures, the iron columns and beams in these two floors appear to have been completely exposed, with no apparent means of fireproofing visible. (While the actual iron columns might have been fireproofed and then had an iron plate detailed over this to make it look like the actual structure was exposed, the column’s spindly dimensions lead me to say this is not the case.)  

The design of the elevations shows the influence of both Fuller’s United Bank Building and Root’s Insurance Exchange.  We can start with Fuller’s design of the United Bank Building in New York, that had also informed Root’s design of the Insurance Exchange, that then had influenced Cobb & Frost’s final design.  In the Bank Building, Fuller had used a composition of wider corner and central pavilion piers (that he also had carried into the building’s attic) to modulate what otherwise would been a very monotonous front elevation of repetitive structural bays.  Root had used this same motif, including its extension into the attic of the Insurance Exchange.  

While Cobb & Frost likewise had used this theme on the longer “front” of the Opera House building along Clark Street, they also felt compelled to reinforce the façade’s center by reprising Root’s trick of displacing the floor levels above the balcony by one story, except here they interposed a blind arcade immediately above the tenth floor windows, that displaced the cornice and created a central attic that broke the roofline, marking the center and entrance of the building.

Left: Opera House Block. (Condit, Chicago); Right: The Insurance Exchange. (Hoffmann, Root). While Root has used the balcony to dislodge the belt course one story, Cobb & Frost have inserted a segment of a blind arcade in the cornice over the Clark Street entrance to dislodge the cornice to emphasize the center of the elevation.

This elevation has been typically overlooked in favor of the Washington Street elevation simply because most to the surviving photographs of the exterior are taken at such an angle that the Clark elevation is hard to discern.  Therefore, focusing on the shorter, less “important” Washington elevation historians find a slightly different rhythm with regards to the location of the wider piers.  In this elevation the wide and narrow piers alternate across the entire façade, which they do not do in the Clark Street façade.  Because the architects were forced to locate the theater’s entrance offset from the center by one bay to the right (the program demanded this?), one does not at first realize that the design of the upper elevation still consists of a central and corner pavilions, as does the Clark Street façade, but indeed it does! Look carefully at the windows: the corner pavilions have single windows while the interior bays comprise of paired windows.

Cobb and Frost, Chicago Opera House Block. (Condit, Chicago)

Meanwhile, the Opera House’s horizontal composition or layering of the elevations was quite similar to the overall arrangement of the Insurance Exchange.  The only difference between the layering of the two buildings was Cobb & Frost’s removal of Root’s awkward belt course in the fifth floor, that lowered the four-story arcade one floor. The extra floor was then moved to the top of the building where it was grouped into a two-story layer.  

They reprised Fuller’s square turrets from the bank at the top of each corner, while the actual detailing of the arcade, bore a striking resemblance to the design by their former employers, Peabody and Stearn’s R. H. White warehouse.  

Above: United Bank Building. (Online); Below: Opera House Block. (Art Institute of Chicago)
Peabody and Stearns, R.H. White Warehouse Store, Boston, 1882.
(American Architect, September 15, 1883)

And now to address the structure in the exterior walls in the upper eight floors.  Looking at these elevations, one can easily imagine that the iron columns and beams in the first two floors were simply extended into the rest of the elevation, especially given the overall rectilinear grid of the façades, so for the sake of argument, let’s start by assuming this was the case.  The building was famous for the speed with which Fuller had completed its ten floors: from its start in mid-August to the start of December-it took only four months!  One could credit this record speed to the use of only skeleton framing throughout the building.  An article in Inland Architect in November 1884 only muddied the waters more: “some of the heaviest columns ever placed… with the corner column supporting all ten stories.” But the article never specified if those upper stories were of iron or of masonry.  I come down on the side of the argument that says no iron was used above the second floor in the exterior for these reasons:

1. Never in the contemporary professional press was it ever mentioned that the entire exterior wall was supported by an iron frame. (I use the same argument against the same claim made for the later Home Insurance Building-coming up next.)  It simply is still too early for such a paradigm-change in construction to occur.  If indeed its exterior was skeleton framed, then it would have been the first such building in Chicago, and history would have celebrated it as such, and not the later Home Insurance Building!!  However, Fuller, being the steadfast advocate for steel construction, was reported to have used all steel beams (I think this was actually limited to only the floor joists) in the interior framing.

2. I credit Fuller’s construction genius with the speed of construction.  Looking at the exterior, one can see that he has attempted to use repetition of the same element as many times as possible, to “keep it simple, stupid.” The fewer the number of differently sized windows, bricks, lintels, etc., the less thought the workmen have to put into their actions that resulted in more efficiency, hence, the increased speed of construction. Fuller will continue to innovate in construction techniques to reduce the time that it took to erect a building.  Probably the best example will be with the Tacoma Building, in which he had three teams of masons erecting the brick curtain wall starting at the same time on three different floors, rather than starting on the ground floor and laying one story at a time.

3. Fuller would use this same detail, putting nine floors (one more than the Opera House) of loadbearing masonry on a two-story high iron frame in the alley elevations of Burnham & Root’s Rookery two years later. If he had used an iron frame in the Insurance Exchange, I see no reason that he would not have also done the same in the Rookery. 

Burnham & Root, The Rookery, Chicago, 1885. Corner pier at the intersection of Quincy and the alley. Here Root and Fuller have taken iron skeleton construction to the next level: putting the glass facade in front of, rather than in between the iron columns and beams. Le Corbusier is usually given credit for this technique in his “free facade” concept of 1923. (Author’s collection)

Nonetheless, the Opera House Block’s two stories of iron framing marked the post-fire return of the use of iron skeleton framing in the exterior of Chicago’s multistory buildings. (This, of course, assumes that Boyington had used the iron columns and beams in the Board of Trade’s Trading Floor-only one story-only to support the trusses that spanned the Hall, while the office floors above were constructed with exterior loadbearing masonry.)  Fuller, with Cobb & Frost, had conceived detail this before William Le Baron Jenney had decided to put iron columns in the masonry piers of the Home Insurance Building (next to be reviewed).

Meanwhile, the Chicago Opera Block’s theater had opened in August 1885 to less than rave reviews.  Cobb & Frost had designed its house specifically for the “spectacular extravaganzas” staged by impresario David Henderson, designed to awe the middle-class audiences with glitz and over-the-top special effects.  Apparently, Cobb & Frost could not resist competing with Henderson’s “lack of good taste.”  One critic excoriated the interior’s gaudy decoration: “every advantage has been taken of the color scale, so as to obtain the greatest amount of glitter and glare.  There is a want of repose – some cool spot to rest the eye upon.  An endeavor has been made to gild refined gold and paint the lily, and the feeling aroused is more one of astonishment than admiration.”

While the negative response to their aesthetics could have been waived off as being subjective, Cobb & Frost’s lack of experience in the actual physical design of an auditorium was suffered by many who were crammed into the 2300 seats, as related by two critics: “By the way the people on the sides of the balcony stand up and crane their necks to look at the stage it is evident that the construction of the many seats in that quarter will have to be revised” for it “impresses one as less open and airy than most of the other city theaters, more compact, something of agreeable appearance having been sacrificed to the purpose of getting as many people as possible as close to the stage.”  The theater’s owners had to admit their initial error in hiring a firm without any prior experience in the design of a theater and hired Adler & Sullivan to completely remodel the auditorium’s interior once the theater’s premiere season ended in June 1886.  (see next chapter)

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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