It started as a kind of opera factory—an airy, five-story warehouse at 26th and Dearborn where workers turned out the scenery and costumes for the Chicago Civic Opera Company, a short-lived dream of the utilities czar Samuel Insull. The building went up in 1923, and for a few years the inside was a hive of skilled labor: Seamstresses, fitters, and dyers created colorful and exotic apparel; metal- and woodworkers manned sturdy lathes; painters turned out drops 70 feet wide and 40 feet high, operating in a cavernous space in which the drop could be raised and lowered through an opening in the floor. When the time came to stage an opera, the materials would be trucked scene by scene to the Civic Theater, then returned and stored for future use—along with the detritus that Insull had collected from at least two other failed opera companies.
The Depression abruptly ended Insull’s dream, and one day in 1932, with the announcement that the Civic Opera Company was closing, the remaining workers walked out, leaving behind pencils, half-full coffee cups, and partly finished designs. The warehouse stood abandoned for 22 years, until 1954, when staffers from the newly formed Lyric Opera of Chicago reopened it to find a time capsule of forgotten glories of the stage. Lyric used the space as a warehouse, but maintained a scene shop in the basement of the Civic Theater.
Now, with real-estate prices rising, Lyric has sold the building to a developer, who plans to turn it into lofts (the opera company will store future props and sets in trailers on a yard in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, on the city’s far Southwest Side). On a weekend in October, the contents of the old building were sold—perhaps 100 years of opera history, scattered to the public and collectors alike. For hours, thousands of bargain hunters stood in lines four and five blocks long. They bought spears, oars, trunks, chairs, sofas, statues, wooden hangers, and costumes. In the end, cash receipts for a century’s worth of accumulated rummage netted Lyric Opera $77,190.
Where (and how) the magic happened
A little girl's—and collector's—utopia
All things opera
Photograph: Kate Roth