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The opera house was the vision of utility magnate Samuel Insull (1859-1938), a populist billionaire known as “the Prince of Electricity”. Insull was a captain of industry and co-founder of the energy companies known today as General Electric and ComEd. He was also the president of the Chicago Civic Opera Association.
The design team of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White was chosen to create the new building to house the opera house and commercial offices. The firm wanted the Civic Opera Building to symbolize “the spirit of a community which is still youthful and not much hampered by traditions.” Insull sent his designers to study all the great European opera houses so they could incorporate their finest features into his house—without imitating them. Well known to significant Chicago work, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White had already created the Field Museum, the Wrigley Building, and the Shedd Aquarium and would go on to create the massive Merchandise Mart.
The building drew worldwide attention; breaking all norms of theater design. Originally home to two theaters, the Civic Opera Building is a limestone skyscraper with a 45-story office tower and two 22-story wings, all shaped like a gigantic throne facing the Chicago River, occupying the entire block between Washington and Madison Streets. The rent from the office tower was meant to support the resident opera company.
The Lyric Opera’s theater, auditorium and backstage areas occupy about one-third of the total space in the building. One of the Civic Opera Building’s most distinguishing features is the colonnaded portico that runs the entire length of the building on the Wacker Drive side. Under the building, 28-feet below the level of the Chicago River, a connection was made with the Chicago Tunnel Company’s system to deliver coal to the boiler rooms and remove the cinders without ever being above ground. Water from the Chicago River was used to power hydraullic pumps that would raise and lower lifts in the stage. The building was state-of-the-art in 1929 and has undergone many renovations and improvements since that time.