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Civic Opera Building

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Civic Opera Building
Lyric Opera House, Kemper Insurance Group Building


Structure in General

existing [completed]
caisson foundation
applied masonry
light brown
art deco
hipped roof


commercial office theater/opera
shop(s) service branch(es)


  • A covered walkway runs the length of the building on Wacker Drive, supported by 20 stone columns and 4 end piers.
  • Notable singers who have performed here include Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiou, Birgit Nilssen, Leontyne Price, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Christa Ludwig, Carlo Bergonzi, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey, and many others.
  • The Civic Theatre was the site of the premiere of Tennessee Williams' famous play The Glass Menagerie.
  • The volume of the main auditorium is 842,000 cubic feet.
  • The opera house is bilaterally symmetrical except for one seat in the second balcony. With 40 rows the main floor is unusually deep, because the Chicago River narrows the building's footprint.
  • Opera audiences enter through the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer, a grand space with 40-foot travertine columns, Austrian crystal electroliers, and a grand double staircase along the south wall.
  • The exterior ornamentation features lyres, trumpets, palm leaves, and laurel wreaths, in keeping with the decor inside the opera house.
  • Contains a 3,563-seat opera house for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of America's premier opera companies.
  • The opera house and supporting areas occupy approximately one third of the building's volume.
  • The building's setbacks were originally ringed by limestone pylons, and the riverfront terrace had an arched pediment in the middle. These features were replaced by aluminum-clad mechanical structures.
  • Shaped like a giant armchair facing the river. Early critics, referring to the folly of its builder Samuel Insull, called it "Insull's Throne."
  • The first opera ever performed here was Giuseppe Verdi's Aida.
  • In the office elevators the ceilings are painted with a variety of murals, each showing a sky with different celestial objects – airplanes, clouds, kites, birds, cherubs, and other objects.
  • The main stage area is 155 feet high, and extends 10 stories above the top of the proscenium all the way into the building's 12th floor.
  • The opera house was built by utility magnate Samuel Insull for his lover, the famous mezzo-soprano Mary Garden.
  • Ornamentation in the opera house depicts musical instruments, theater masks, and abstract forms in a hybrid of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles – all covered with over 2,000 gallons of gold paint.
  • The building was built with a major substation in its basement for the Commonwealth Edison Company, the power utility headed by Samuel Insull.
  • The box seats are much farther back than in most opera houses, because Insull felt that the goings-on in box seats tended to distract from the music.
  • In October 1996 the opera house auditorium was named the Ardis Krainik Theatre in honor of the opera company's general director from 1981 to 1996.
  • In the opera foyer the natural holes in the travertine were filled with a combination of cement and ground travertine for greater smoothness.
  • In the late 1970s Canadian Club ran magazine ads with treasure hunts for hidden cases of their whiskey in various cities. The ad for Chicago led to an import office in this building.
  • This structure replaced the Auditorium Building as Chicago's main opera house, and the excellent reputation of the older theater's acoustics put pressure on the designers to create top-notch acoustics for the new hall.
  • The opera stage's steel fire curtain is painted with a huge mural by Jules Guerin featuring characters from over 40 operas.
  • The building used to hold a 900-seat auditorium on the north side called the Civic Theatre, but this space was consolidated with the backstage areas of the main opera house.
  • Including the 31 boxes at the mezzanine level, there are three balconies in the opera house. The two upper balconies hold 800 seats each.
  • Jules Guerin, the artist of the fire curtain mural, was responsible also for the entire color scheme of the building, which is dominated by salmon, vermilion, orange, and gold.

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More Information


20 North Wacker Drive
350 West Madison Street, 351 West Washington Street
20 North Wacker Drive

Technical Data

555.01 ft
555.01 ft
555.01 ft
189.44 ft
390.96 ft

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Features & Amenities

  • One of the city's famous buildings
  • City landmark
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