Eichberg Opera House
22 Main Street, Champaign
Closed circa 1895
Max Eichberg was born in Wurttemberg, Germany, 3 February 1839, the youngest of nine children. He emigrated to America at 12 years old, coming directly to Illinois, and lived with his brother in Logan County. He wanted a good business education, so in 1857, he attended college in Cincinnati, and at the same time, worked in the wholesale business. 1.
Thinking the west held promise, in 1860, Max and two brothers moved to Mexico, Missouri, and established themselves in business. Mr. Eichberg then, in 1866, came to Champaign with a brother and opened the New York Store. The store prospered and they rapidly increased their lines. It wasn’t too many years until they outgrew the original store and built the three-story building on the south side of Main Street, roughly opposite of their first store. 2
This cut of Max Eichberg came from The Champaign Daily Gazette of Tuesday, 22 December 1891.
The New Eichberg Building
This fine new building was completed in November 1872. The overall footprint measured 40x90 feet. The Champaign County Gazette of Wednesday, 20 November 1872, gave an excellent description of the entire building.
Seeley Brown was the architect. He supervised the carpentry work as well as the overall construction of the building. The foundation, of the best Kankakee stone, and basement story were built by John Webber. The basement contains storage rooms, closets, cellars, furnace and fuel rooms. R.A. Sutton was contractor for the brick superstructure with the brick laying done by James Ralph. The Burson Brothers did the plastering. Wm. Price did the painting and graining. The Walker Brothers did the fancy wood work in the sales room and stairs. 3
The Gazette reported the estimated cost of the structure at about $20,000 4 which would be about $473,950 in 2022 dollars.
This is the south side of Main Street between Walnut (left) and Neil (far right). The First National Bank (razed in 1909 for their new building that still stands) is on the left. The building to its west housed the original Varsity Theatre. The Eichberg (just right of center) was the tallest building in the block at the time.
Quoting the Champaign County Gazette: “The First Story comprises a large and elegant double-width store-room, shelved and countered on either side and center with the most handsome patterns and best qualities of ash and walnut. There are two front doors to this splendid mercantile apartment, between which is a mammoth double-sized show window, blazing with the finest fabrics of the Orient. On either side of the front entrances are also large show windows. All three of these windows are filled with very large and very heavy French plate glass, which, we understand, cost the builders $1,200. The internal decorations and furniture of the room is entirely too elaborate to be minutely described in our limited space. The shelves on either side are painted white, with a gloss finish, and the ornamentation is of black walnut. The middle tier of shelves is about half the length of the room, and, next in line is the cashier’s office, constructed of finely ornamented ash and walnut. Eight splendid chandeliers, suspended from the 16-foot ceiling, when lighted, fling a brilliant flood of light over the entire interior of the room. Mr. Eichberg’s private office is situated in an alcove under the spiral stairway, which leads to the Second Floor. This elegant room is 30x90 feet, and is intended for the carpet and oil department of the New York Store. It is in perfect taste and in quiet keeping with the entire structure. Adjoining it on the east, with stairways at each end leading north and south, is a hall, the dimensions of which are 10x20 feet. Two dressing rooms are also situated here, likewise the ticket office belonging to the Opera Hall.” 5
The third-floor Opera Hall measured 70x40 feet. “A beautifully finished gallery” in the north end of the building overhangs one-half of the floor. 700 people can be comfortably seated in the hall. The stage, opposite the gallery, measured 40x20 feet. There were two entrances to the stage – one, a side door opened into the auditorium, and the other to the rear of the building. There were nine “superb scenes” prepared in Cincinnati. The rear of the stage was elevated four feet and sloped gradually to the foot-lights. 6
The sloped stages are not so common now days, but were quite common in the days of the Eichberg. Sloping stages literally gave us the definition of “upstage” and “downstage” used by actors as they were actually moving up or down hill. Another use of the term “upstaging” occurs when an actor steals attention from another actor by creating business that draws away the audience’s attention.
Photo of the Eichberg Building courtesy of the Champaign County Historical Archives.
Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1887. The Eichberg building is above the "8".
The formal opening of the Eichberg Opera Hall took place Tuesday, 26 November 1872. A grand musical entertainment was given by the “Chicago Ballad Concert Troupe” under the auspices of the Young Men’s Social Club. 7
The Champaign County Gazette reported on the opening and gave a review of the troupe in the 27 November 1872 paper. The Gazette reporter did not particularly care for the performance: “Eichberg’s Opera Hall was thrown open to the public for the first-time last night. As we gave a full description of the building in our previous issue, it will hardly be necessary to say anything in this connection of the beautiful and cozy interior of the new hall. The audience seemed more than pleased with its appearance and fully satisfied with its arrangements and appointments. The numerous gas-jets lighted it to cheerfulness, and the single scene set for the occasion gave hopeful promise of the beauty of those to come, while the drop-curtain is certainly a gem in the way of scenic painting.
The audience was sufficiently large to fill the hall comfortably full, and in style and appearance was such as would do credit to any inland city in the country.
The entertainment was in the line of a parlor concert, given by a troupe titled “The Chicago Ballad Concert Troupe,” under the leadership of that rising young pianist and composer, Silas G. Pratt.
Want of both time and space will prevent our speaking of the performance in detail, and we are only able to pass a brief opinion concerning the merits of the performers and the manner in which each executed the various parts assigned in the programme.
Mr. Pratt, the pianist and leader of the troupe, is yet too young to be criticized harshly. That he is both talented and ambitious, there is no question, while his devotion to the divine art of music is excelled by none. He but recently returned from Europe, whither he went some time since to finish up his musical education. That the future is bright for this young and graceful enthusiast, we firmly believe, for, even now, many of his compositions are deservedly popular. In his playing last night, he developed but two styles, viz.: the sweetly emotional and the nervous spasmodic. That he has the more heroic, thrilling, startling styles at command, may be true, but such music is doubtless not his forte, and but rarely introduced in his score. His improvisation upon the Burdett Combination Organ was poorly rendered and only displayed the orchestral combinations of the instrument.
Mr. C.H. Britian, the tenor, was rather strongly inclined to “beat time” for the benefit of the audience. There are very few really good tenors in the world. Mr. B. is not one of them.
Miss Ledyard, the soprano, is a large and powerfully built lady, looking as tho’ she might be possessed of a voice sufficiently strong to rend the very dome of heaven, but, bless you, no, she is too economical of her voice and apparently afraid to open her mouth. In her singing she stinted in tone and delivered her notes cut squarely in two.
The contralto, Mrs. Johnson, acquitted herself well. There is a wonderfully sympathetic quality in her voice, that places her at once en rapport with her hearers, while the clearness and purity of her tone are rarely excelled. 8
The building that housed the Eichberg Opera House was built in 1872 at 22 Main. The 1878-79 City Directory lists just one opera house - the Eichberg Opera Hall, and the Eichberg is the only hall listed until the 1890 directory when it is joined by the Swannell Opera House and the Walker Opera House.
Max Eichberg and Ben Baer operated the Eichberg & Baer New York Store on the ground floor, selling, among other things, dry goods, notions, and carpets.
The ticket office was on the second floor and the opera house was on the third.
The Eichberg Opera House ceased operations sometime after 1895. The space was then used as the Masonic Temple until early January, 1914, when the Masons moved to their own newly constructed building.
The opera house building had been purchased by S. A. Nelson. After the Masons moved out, Nelson spent $500.00 to completely renovate the opera house space for use as a public hall to be known as Nelson Hall.
In the early 1960s, the building was heavily damaged by fire. It was then razed and the land became a parking lot.