By Brett Hafstad

As you move along the South branch of the Chicago River, it acts as a timeline of architecture in the city with each block you pass. Although the Willis, or Sears, Tower dominates the view, there’s one other building that’s sure to catch your eye due to its resemblance to a large throne. The Civic Opera Building has been a staple of Chicago Architecture since the 1920’s. A bit more tucked away in today’s skyline, this pinnacle of art-deco architecture was the standout building of it’s time. So what part does the Opera Building have to play in Chicago’s history, and where did it get its design?

The Civic Opera Building, 1929

Following the Great Fire, Chicago gained the nickname “the Second City” thanks to how quickly it was able to rebuild and bounce back. In the early 20th century, it also became the birthplace of the skyscraper as the need to grow upwards became necessary. New York was well established and a large population of Americans and immigrants started to move west to Chicago including Samuel Insull. After being passed on for the GE President position, Insull felt it was time for a change in scenery and business. He rose to become President of the Chicago Edison Electric company, which would later become ComEd, still seen as the largest electricity provider in the area. He and his wife, a broadway star in her youth, had an affinity for the arts which led to the building of the Civic Opera House. Insull decided on the location thanks to its proximity to transportation in and out of the city, a trait it still holds to this day. Art Deco was becoming widely popular in the 1920’s, especially in Chicago, and Insull’s vision for the Opera House would certainly inherit those traits. He hired a popular architecture firm, still considered as playing a major role in the city’s culture. Some of their additional work that can still be seen in the city include Union Station, the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Field Museum, among others. 

Today’s views from Bond Collective, West Loop

The Civic Opera Building was built to operate as two separate buildings, with the base hosting the Opera House and a 45 story tower that would play host to companies and stores to help offset the expenses of the building. From its completion in 1929 to the 1950’s, it was one of the tallest buildings in the city sitting just 50 feet shorter than the tallest; an odd trait for an Opera House to say the least. Adorned with 3,563 seats, the Opera House remains the second largest in North America to this day.

From rendering to reality, the Civic Opera House is fully realized as a pinnacle of art deco architecture

None of this explains the throne-like shape that the Opera Building has become known for though. So where did the inspiration come from? One story revolves around Insull’s wife, who had grown frustrated after being denied Opera parts by New York’s Metropolitan Opera.It’s rumored that this was the catalyst to move to Chicago and created a grand Opera House for his wife to perform in. This story has little depth though as Insull’s wife was a broadway performer, not an Opera Singer. However, this urban legend would loosely become the groundwork for Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane. There is a much more believable story though often thought to be true because it’s based around Insull’s actual life events. After being passed over for the GE Presidency position, he moved to Chicago to begin his endeavors at the helm of a new company. His love for Opera led to building of the Civic Opera House and he requested the design to be based around a throne facing west, signifying that he has turned his back on New York City. Whether that thought process was involved or not, when later asked about the reasoning behind the shape, one of the architects involved said that it was all nonsense and to fulfill their building size needs, they had to go higher as there was no surrounding land to grow on to. No matter the back story around the shape, it’s certainly become an iconic building in this city’s great architectural story.

Boutique style lounge on the 10th floor, Bond Collective

Bond Collective opened the first of our two Chicago locations in this historical building in 2020, amidst a global pandemic, with full faith that this vibrant center of art and performance would once again team with business. Sprawling across two floors, this location boasts show stopping lounges, private offices, and conference rooms designed to the same exacting standards of comfort, style, and elegance that is Bond Collective. We welcome you to stop in any time to see why we fell in love with the Civic Opera Building.

Staircases connecting the 10th and 11th floors