(This is my 150th post: 400 pages of text and 1000 images. Thank you all for following!)

Adler & Sullivan, 1885 Chicago Grand Opera Festival Hall, Chicago Expo Building, 1885. (Gregersen, Adler)

The dawn of the New Year, 1885, however, found anticipation mounting among Chicago’s businessmen for the celebration of the opening of the new Board of Trade, scheduled for May 1.  A huge, gala banquet was being planned for the evening of Monday, April 28, for which dignitaries from across the nation were being invited.  In conjunction with the planned completion of the nation’s tallest building, the 303’ tall tower of the Board of Trade as well as all of the new skyscrapers being built in the immediate area around the Board of Trade, one could think of the banquet as Chicago’s national “coming out party.”  Ferdinand Peck, socialist Albert Parson’s opposite number, used the upcoming banquet to concoct a most ingenious response to the growing presence of the socialists in the city’s streets.  Following the January 1884 Chicago debut of the Metropolitan Opera in Haverly’s Theater, where Abbey had charged an arm and a leg for tickets that essentially precluded all but the wealthiest of Chicago’s citizens, that had the effect of throwing gasoline onto the Socialist cause, Peck had once again stepped up in April 1884 to counter the Socialist threat.  He proposed and set to organizing Chicago’s first Grand Opera Festival for April 6-18, 1885, similar to those that Cincinnati had been successfully staging for the past three years.  

Peck’s timing for the Festival not only positioned it as a prelude to the celebration of the completion of the new Board of Trade, but more diabolically, would prevent the Socialists from using the Exposition Building for their annual “monster” commemoration of the Paris Commune in March, because construction of the Festival’s temporary auditorium would necessarily already be under way.  The opera festival, therefore, was planned as an all-out frontal attack against Chicago’s Communists by Chicago’s leading capitalists who made up the festival’s Board of Directors (Peck, N.K. Fairbank, George Pullman, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field’s brother Henry, Joseph Medill of the Tribune, and William Penn Nixon of the Inter Ocean.)  Nine of the eleven festival directors were also members of recently rechartered Union League Club that was now dedicated to defending their country from the evils of Socialism, for which Jenney had been commissioned to design its new local building.  On March 18, 1885, only three weeks before Opening Night, Chicago’s socialists and anarchists commemorated the 14th anniversary of the Paris Commune not with a single, united demonstration of 30-40,000 people in the Exposition Building, as had often occurred the previously, but with a much less threatening dispersed series of speeches and plays held in their own theaters on the North and West Sides, “bent on celebrating in a befitting manner that great event of March 18, 1871.”  Following the festival, Peck would then succeed in sealing off the Exposition Building from any further Socialist gatherings by simply agreeing to pay the city the $1000 annual rent that Council had demanded back in 1879.

That Peck’s model for the Opera festival was Cincinnati’s was evident in his choice of the festival’s impresario, James H. Mapleson, who had managed the previous Cincinnati festivals.  Peck had traveled to New York in May 1884 to contract Mapleson to manage the Chicago Festival.  His timing couldn’t have been better, as Mapleson was not only caught in the middle of the battle being waged between his Academy of Music’s troupe and Abbey’s new Metropolitan Opera, but his receipts from his recent Chicago run had also been reduced by Abbey’s preemptive appearance in January the week before Mapleson’s engagement was scheduled.  There was also a subtle political tone to Peck’s choice of Mapleson.  Mapleson’s Covent Garden company still concentrated on the great Italian operas, while Abbey had hired one of Richard Wagner’s associates to bring the new German operas to America.  German was the language of the majority of Chicago’s Socialists.  Besides, Peck knew that Mapleson still held the contract of the world’s star performer, Adelina Patti.

Adler & Sullivan, 1885 Chicago Grand Opera Festival Hall, Chicago Expo Building, 1885. (Chicagology)

Once Mapleson had agreed to manage the festival, Peck again hired Adler & Sullivan to design the temporary hall to be built inside the Exposition Building.  But as Peck was now determined to make this festival a complete success, he hoped to avoid the pitfalls that had diminished the overall success of the earlier Music Festivals of 1882 and 1884.  The festival’s promotional brochure stated its goal was: “to provide Grand Italian Opera for the people at popular prices, within the reach of all, and, at the same time, to raise the performances to a higher level of excellence.”  Peck assigned Adler an unheard of budget of $60,000 for the temporary installation in the North End of the Expo Building that allowed Adler to design a completely enclosed auditorium and stage within its vast interior that would seat 6200 and had a standing capacity of 8,000.  The highlight of the large auditorium was the huge 120’ by 80’ fan-shaped sounding board that Adler placed over the stage that projected out over the audience.   

Sullivan ornamented the triangular segments of the board with his proto-Art Nouveau curves and repetitive geometries that were “richly ornamented by color decoration and plastic forms.”  Sullivan’s curvilinear ornament of this period has often been characterized as “proto-Art Nouveau,” but why this work, designed some seven years before the generally-agreed upon start of Art Nouveau architecture in 1892 by Victor Horta with his Tassel House in Brussels, isn’t qualified to be Art Nouveau leaves me scratching my head. I have juxtaposed a chair by British architect Arthur Mackmurdo in 1883 next to Sullivan’s design that same year for the glass panel in the entry door for his office to allow you to compare similarities. I also included a couple of column capitals designed by S.S. Beman, also that same year, to bolster my thesis of Chicago’s architects were developing a new style of ornament. You can decide for yourself if Sullivan’s work is “proto-” or Art Nouveau… Either way, there can be no argument whether or not it is modern.

Louis Sullivan, 1885 Chicago Grand Opera Festival Hall. Ceiling stencil of Art Nouveau design. Sullivan designed this Art Nouveau design seven years before the usually agreed-upon start date of the European Art Nouveau in 1892. (Gregersen, Adler)

To also reinforce the projection of the sound, Adler splayed a series of ten two-tiered box seats from the edge of the stage, that were also meant to showcase Chicago’s elite to those of the middle class who would be seated in the house.  At least for these two weeks, Chicago could try to be “one big happy family” as they were all together in the same room.  The festival was a complete success, and after the final note on the closing night, April 18, Peck was brought to the stage by a thundering standing ovation for a final word of appreciation.  He ended by saying that the festival ”had shown what Chicago would and could do, and he hoped that people would look upon this as a stepping stone to a great permanent hall where similar enterprises would have a home.  The continuation of this annual festival, with magnificent music, at prices within reach of all, would have a tendency to diminish crime and Socialism in our city by educating the masses to higher things.”  The supporters of the Socialists on Council would have the last word, however, for once the Festival was over, city building inspectors declared Adler & Sullivan’s installation a fire hazard and demanded that it be immediately demolished.


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.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Van Zanten, David.  Sullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan. New York: Norton, 2000.

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

2 thoughts on “10.19. ART NOUVEAU: THE 1885 OPERA FESTIVAL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s