Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block. Plans of Main Floor and Balcony of the House. (Siry, Auditorium)

In August 1885, the Chicago Opera House opened to less than stunning reviews.   The first auditorium designed by Cobb & Frost was to house the “spectacular extravaganzas” staged by impresario David Henderson, staged to awe 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 its gaudy interior 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 all who were crammed into its 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 error in hiring a firm without any prior auditorium experience to design the theater and once the theater’s premiere season ended in June 1886, and hired Adler & Sullivan, who by this time had established themselves as the city’s leading theater designers, to completely remodel the auditorium’s interior.


Police Break-up Meeting in Vörwarts Hall, Chicago, July 26, 1877. (Siry, Auditorium)

The one fact I did not discuss about the Opera House Block when I reviewed it in Sec. 8. 9 was the reason why the owners felt the need to build another large theater in Chicago in the spring of 1884? The time to do this has now come, and to do so we must first return to July 1877 when Maestro Theodore Thomas was in the midst of his concerts of the Chicago Summer Nights series held in the Exposition Center.  Joseph Siry has documented in his book on Chicago’s Auditorium building the interrelationship between the rise of Chicago’s Socialists in the post-fire city and the efforts of the ruling business elites to counter this with an agenda of European artistic culture, i.e. theaters and museums.  Charles Gregersen has cataloged the theaters designed by Dankmar Adler, along with the young Louis Sullivan, that were erected as part of this program in his monograph, Dankmar Adler: His Theatres and Auditoriums. I will combine the research of these two historians with my studies of the history of Cincinnati’s music and artistic scene to present the intense competition between New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago that occurred between 1877, when Cincinnati first embarked on the construction of its Music Hall, and when Chicago finally opened its Auditorium Theater some twelve years later on December 9, 1889.

Hannaford and Proctor, Cincinnati Music Hall. The Auditorium. Note the new organ, also the largest in the country at the time, including Boston’s then famous organ. (Painter, Music Hall)

Thomas’ concert series in 1877 was brought to an immediate halt and the remaining series cancelled by the Railroad Strike of 1877 and the protest/riots that ensued, especially those that broke out in Chicago between Friday, July 20 and Thursday, July 26.  The series promoters, George B. Carpenter and Nathaniel K. Fairbank attempted to make amends to Thomas for the interruption by having him perform a benefit concert on August 1, the proceeds of which were given to Thomas, but the damage had been done to Chicago’s campaign to entice him to move to the city.  Thomas would take up residence in Cincinnati in its brand new 4400-seat Music Hall the following year.

Adler, Central Music Hall. Interior. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

The police had brutally quashed these protest/riots that had resulted in the Socialists’ success in the November 1878 municipal elections that had upset the balance of power in City Council and had led to the Council’s forcing the Exposition Center’s owners to allow the Socialists to hold their massive rally in the building on March 28, 1879, to mark the eighth anniversary of the Paris Commune.  This threat to the business community’s control of the city had been met with the construction of the Central Music Hall as an attempt to not only respond to the success of Cincinnati’s Music Hall and to provide an alternative venue to the Socialist lectures around town, but also to provide an auditorium for the Rev. David Swing and his influential followers who had moved from the Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Near North side to McVicker’s Theater.  Dankmar Adler was commissioned to design the building in which he succeeded in providing a venue with excellent acoustics that had launched his career as Chicago’s premiere theater designer.  The first church service had consecrated the building on January 5, 1880.   The requirement that Adler had to design the interior primarily for Swing’s church services, however, resulted in the exclusion of a stage and provisions for scenery, in favor of a pulpit framed by the church’s large organ; there were no provisions or space for performances or scenery, and therefore, failed to provide an adequate venue to compete with Cincinnati.


Alexander Sältzer, New York Academy of Music, remodeled in 1866. Note there are only nine private boxes at each side of the stage. (Siry, Auditorium)

As Theodore Thomas was to orchestral music in the U.S., British opera impresario James H. Mapleson was the central name in Italian opera in the U.S.  In the mid-19th Century, there was no art form more important or influential than opera, a fact of which many 21st Century people are simply oblivious. It was the equivalent of today’s movies. In fact, it was the closest thing to a movie before the invention of electricity. Opera had drama, stage sets, special effects and lighting, sometimes dancing, and music, such great music. Richard Wagner understood this when he employed the term “gesamtkunstwerk“( total work of art) in his 1849 essay, “The Artwork of the Future,” in theorizing the ultimate union of drama, opera, art, and life. Paris had just opened its new Opera House in 1875. Wagner had completed his new house in Bayreuth the following year, with Cincinnati opening its Music Hall in 1878. Civic and national prestige were, quite simply, measured by one’s opera house.

Mapleson managed a number of London’s leading opera houses and companies, including Her Majesty’s and Covent Garden’s. As America’s economy had begun to improve towards the latter part of 1878, Mapleson had brought his London opera company first to New York, staging what he planned to be an annual opera festival in New York’s Academy of Music during the months of November and December, that he would then follow up with a national tour along a route similar to that taken by Theodore Thomas and his orchestra during the previous decade, making major appearances in both Chicago and Cincinnati. 

Oscar Cobb, Haverly’s Theater, Chicago, 57 W. Monroe. 1881. (Chicagology)

Mapleson chose the largest venue (2500 seats) in Chicago, the recently completed (opened on Aug. 4, 1878) Haverly’s Theater, designed by Oscar Cobb and located on the south side of Monroe between Dearborn and Clark, to initiate his annual national tour of his opera troupe in January 1879, establishing it as the site for Italian Grand Opera in Chicago. Following the city’s mediocre response in Chicago, Cincinnati’s Music Hall, with its 4400 seats had provided Mapleson with large profits, even though he had to lower the price of the tickets.  New York’s Academy of Music, the bastion of Manhattan’s old-monied elite society, however, was much smaller than Cincinnati, so Mapleson had charged exorbitant prices for tickets and still filled the house. The combination of the small number of seats and the high prices of those seats had only increased the frustration among those who enjoyed opera in New York.   But the Academy of Music had posed an even more significant obstacle for the city’s newly-emerging elites: there were only eighteen private boxes in the entire theater, and they were all owned by the old-monied knickerbockers.  There was no room for the newcomers to show off their wealth and good taste.


Gregersen, Charles E.  Dankmar Adler: His Theaters and Auditoriums. Athens, Ohio University, 1990.

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

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at:

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