The history of the Opéra Comique, like that of many theatres before electric lighting was installed, was marked by fires. The first theatre, built in 1783, went up in flames in 1838. Rebuilt by Théodore Charpentier (1797-1867), it rapidly became decrepit and during a performance on 25 May 1887 fire broke out on stage and spread to the auditorium.
Its reconstruction was problematical. There were proposals to build a new opera house in the place du Châtelet or the Buttes-Chaumont. Finally it was decided to rebuild it on the same site but with a façade overlooking the boulevard des Italiens. This proved unfeasible because it would have entailed the demolition of many apartment buildings and expropriation costs of seven million francs! So the initial orientation of the building was kept, with the main façade on rue Favart and the entrance, place Boïeldieu.
An architectural competition was launched on 1 May 1893. Eighty-four entries were submitted and the projects were exhibited in the Palais de l'Industrie. The architects had to make do with a cramped site—a rectangular plot measuring fifty-two by thirty metres—and a budget of 3,500,000 francs. First prize went to the architect Louis Bernier (1845-1921).
Henry Schmit's well-designed project received an honourable mention. It reflects the nineteenth century's taste for Italian style theatres and the influence of the great model, Charles Garnier's opera house, which had been completed in 1875.