Crosby's Opera House

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Crosby's Opera House
Location Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Coordinates 41°53′01″N 87°37′43″W / 41.8835°N 87.6286°W / 41.8835; -87.6286Coordinates: 41°53′01″N 87°37′43″W / 41.8835°N 87.6286°W / 41.8835; -87.6286
Owner Uranus H. Crosby
Type Opera house
Opened April 20, 1865 (1865-04-20)
Closed October 9, 1871 (1871-10-09)
Construction cost $600,000

Crosby's Opera House (1865–1871) was an opera house in Chicago, Illinois, United States. It was founded by Uranus H. Crosby in 1865 in an effort to bring a great opera hall to the city. The building was designed by William W. Boyington; the great expense of its construction ruined Crosby. After holding only occasional performances, an association formed to relieve the house of its great debt. A lottery was held that distributed over 210,000 tickets, awarding purchasers great works of art and even the building itself. After it was sold back to Crosby by the lottery winner, the hall saw more consistent performances. The hall hosted the 1868 Republican National Convention. It was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and never rebuilt.


Uranus Harold Crosby came to Chicago from Chatham, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1850. He did so on recommendation of his cousin Albert, who insisted that the city was well-cultured. Albert had arrived two years earlier to establish a liquor and tea trading house, Albert Crosby & Co. In 1851, the cousins established a liquor manufactory and the operation became the largest wholesale distributor of distilled alcohol and camphine.[1]

Despite his new-found wealth, Uranus Crosby was disappointed at the lack of culture that he was promised in Chicago. The growing city could offer little more than brothels, saloons, and gambling houses for entertainment. The one theater, built by John Blake Rice in 1847, was destroyed in a fire shortly before Crosby's arrival. When Rice rebuilt the theater in 1851, Crosby was disappointed that he showed little interest in exhibiting opera performances. James Hubert McVicker, a close friend of Crosby's who was a neighbor in the Briggs House hotel, built a playhouse. Crosby probably assisted McVicker with raising credit for the institution.[1]

By 1855, Rice had retired from the theater business, leaving his theater a house of novelty shows. McVicker's Theater became the cultural center of Chicago entertainment, but Crosby believed that the city was overdue for a grand opera house like the ones he knew back East.[1] He selected a site on the north side of Washington Street between State Street and Dearborn Avenue, then embarked with architect William W. Boyington on a tour of opera houses in Union cities. Boyington then designed Crosby's Opera House with assistant architect John W. Roberts. Frescoes were painted by Otto Jevne and Peter M. Almini, who were partners in a Chicago decorating firm specializing in ornamental painting,[2] while William Voegtlin was tasked with other scenic art. Wellbaum & Bauman handled carpentry and masonry with cut stone work by L. H. Boldenweck. The structure cost $600,000 (equivalent to $9,590,000 in 2017),[3] which ruined Crosby financially.[4]

Early performances[edit]

Crosby's Opera House was scheduled to open April 17, 1865. The conductor Jules Grau would lead the inaugural series of Italian operas, performed by a company from New York City's Academy of Music featuring Clara Louise Kellogg. However, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln forced a three-day delay in the house's opening. Il trovatore was the first performance, followed by a four-week season with Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Poliuto, Martha, Norma, Faust, Linda di Chamounix, La sonnambula, I puritani, Un ballo in maschera, Dom Sébastien, Lucrezia Borgia, Ernani, and Fra Diavolo.[4]

The opera house did not employ a permanent company, so there was not a continuous string of performances. In late May 1865, three comedies and a performance of Hamlet were staged as a benefit for the Chicago Sanitary Fair. Karl Formes gave concerts that September, followed by performance by the Hanlon Brothers comedy group. The Music Hall annex, intended mostly for lectures and concerts, was completed on November 29. Edwin Forrest made his first appearance in Chicago since 1848 on January 22, 1866 with a company led by John Edward McCullough. James Edward Murdoch gave a reading for charity on February 5, 1866.[4]

The Crosby Opera House lottery[edit]

Recognition, by Constant Mayer, was the sixth prize of the lottery.

By May 1866, investors were weary of the leadership of Crosby, who failed to make significant profit on the property. As the Crosby Art Association, they organized a scheme to raise funds and dispose of property through a lottery. For $5 a ticket, people would receive an engraving and had the chance to acquire the opera house or any of its holdings. Works from the art gallery wing were of particular interest. The lottery was very successful, and the association had to open branch offices in other cities to comply with the demand for tickets. In the meantime, the money raised helped the opera house to hold performances from Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa and Pasquale Brignoli, which were free to anyone holding a ticket.[4] The prizes, and their values advertised, were:[5]

The drawing was originally scheduled for October 11, 1866, but because of high ticket demand it was delayed until January 21, 1867. The association distributed 210,000 tickets and offered three hundred and two prizes, with the opera house as the grand prize.[4] 25,593 tickets were presented to Crosby to give him a chance of maintaining ownership; the rest were sold.[4] Most shops and businesses in Chicago closed so that employees could attend the event. Nineteen trusted public officials from around the country such as banker William F. Coolbaugh, former Lieutenant Governor of Illinois Francis Hoffmann, American Express agent J. C. Fargo, and historian David Pulsifer oversaw the drawing. Woods in Autumn was won by J. J. Taylor of Springfield, Illinois and Alpine Scenery was awarded to E. P. Dwyer of Chicago. Crosby maintained possession of The Yo Semite Valley, An American Autumn, and a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln by Leonard Volk, valued at $2,500. Deer on the Prairie was awarded to Daniel Russell of Boston, Massachusetts. A. H. Lee of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois had the winning ticket for the opera house. However, Lee's wife was ill and he had little interest in leaving her for Chicago. On January 25, 1867, he met with Crosby in Chicago and agreed to sell the house to him for $200,000.[4]

Later engagements[edit]

Adelaide Ristori made her first Chicago appearance the day after the lottery, January 22, 1867, as the lead role in Médée. James William Wallack and Edward Loomis Davenport gave a rendition of Othello on September 16. Edward Payson Weston held two receptions on November 28 after completing his walk from Portland, Maine. Patrick Gilmore's band, featuring Camilla Urso, began a series of concerts starting January 20, 1868. Fanny Janauschek performed for two weeks starting February 18. Works included Médée, Adriana Lecouvreur, Marie Stuart, Deborah, Love and Intrigue, and Emilia Galotti. Edwin Forrest made a final appearance in Chicago on March 23. The opera house was host to the 1868 Republican National Convention.[4]

Lydia Thompson was arrested after attacking Wilbur F. Storey following his scathing review in the Chicago Times of one of her performances.

In November 1869, Lydia Thompson brought her troupe of dancers for a burlesque. She returned the next year on February 14. Thompson performed again on the 24th with Pauline Markham; after a particularly foul review by Wilbur F. Storey in the Chicago Times, Thompson and Markham assaulted Storey in the street. Four were arrested and the trial made headlines. In April 1870, the Germania Männerchor gave three performances of The Magic Flute. In May, they exhibited Stradella. In November, Marie Seebach presented Marie Stuart and Faust.[4]

Christina Nilsson sang three concerts in December 1870. Starting on December 28 and continuing for over a month, notorious businessman James Fisk leased the house for his production, The Twelve Temptations. Following the outrage over Rev. Lorenzo Sabine's refusal to accept the remains of actor George Holland, a charity event was held on February 16, 1871 at Crosby's, raising almost $2,000 in support of Rev. George Hendric Houghton at the Little Church Around the Corner. Charles Wyndham gave the last major performance, a two-week engagement with his English Comedy Company.[4]


In the summer of 1871, the opera house underwent alterations. Led by Albert Crosby, $80,000 was raised to lavishly redecorate the venue. An advertisement stated that the Crosby Opera House was to re-open on October 9, 1871, with a performance by Theodore Thomas. However, the night before the re-opening, a fire tore through the city. By the evening of the next day, the Great Chicago Fire had destroyed over 3.3 square miles (8.5 km2) of the city, including Crosby's Opera House. It was never rebuilt,[4] and there was no permanent venue for opera in the city until the Chicago Opera House opened in 1885.


  1. ^ a b c Crosby, Eugene H. (1999). Crosby's Opera House: Symbol of Chicago's Cultural Awakening. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses. pp. 27–40. 
  2. ^ Jevne and Almini, Chicago Illustrated Archived 2013-08-13 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2018. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Andreas, Alfred Theodore (1885). History of Chicago: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. II. Chicago, IL: The A. T. Andreas Company. pp. 601–607. 
  5. ^ "The Opera House and Three Hundred Splendid Oil Paintings". Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. August 1, 1866. p. 352.