For years it has been a wreck of a building on one of the most beautiful sites along Lake Michigan, just off the Fullerton Avenue entrance to Lake Shore Drive. It stood dormant for most of each winter, awaking primarily in summer for what, since 1996, was a popular festival showcasing remounts of some of the best productions from the preceding season by the city’s storefront theater companies.
Now, Theater on the Lake (TOTL), built in 1920 as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, and subsequently used as a USO center during World War II, and as a summertime stage for community theater, is reopening as a wholly rehabbed, modernized facility designed for year-round use as a restaurant, special events facility and performance space.
On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who recalled his first visit to the theater many years ago, when he saw a production by the Neo-Futurists), along with Chicago Park District CEO Michael P. Kelly, oversaw a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the upgraded 19,000-square-foot building that is still something of a work in progress, as are plans for future programming.
“This facility brings together two things,” said Mayor Emanuel. “One is the natural beauty of the lakefront. The other is the man-made beauty of theater and the other arts in Chicago.”
Superintendent Kelly noted that this project can be seen as the “fourth link” in a trio of already existing lakefront centers — the South Shore Cultural Center, Soldier Field and Millennium Park — with the enhanced Lakefront Trail for bikers, runners and others extending from Andersonville to Hyde Park.
Although the essential structure of the original Prairie-style, Dwight Perkins-designed building has been retained, the renovation, by the Evanston-based firm of Kaufman/O’Neil Architecture, in collaboration with Demarsh Construction, includes the replacement of its terra cotta roof, more efficient electrical, heating and air conditioning systems, new plumbing, and the installation of windows (replacing screens) designed to enable year-round use. In addition, an elevator has been installed for ADA accessibility to all levels of the facility.
Other renovations to the long-decrepit space include a new permanent stage (which turns out to be a rather remote proscenium configuration) with flexible seating for 330 people, professional lighting and sound systems, an enclosed lobby and box office, and dressing rooms.
The annual theater season will return next summer with programming curated by Isaac Gomez, a playwright and faculty member of the Theatre School of DePaul University. But the main revenue generator clearly will be the food service and bar facilities, and the building’s use for private events, including weddings.
To that end, covering the cost for the $7 million renovation is John Wrenn Jr.’s Lakefront Hospitality Group, which has been granted a 15-year lease. The building is now equipped with private event spaces, an American fare restaurant with a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, a full bar, outdoor seating and indoor restrooms. The south end of its lakefront terrace can be used for al fresco dining and additional private event rentals. Lunch and dinner will be served, with brunch service on the weekends. There will be indoor seating for 140 patrons, plus space for an additional 280 patrons across its southern and eastern patios facing Lake Michigan and Chicago’s downtown skyline. (Fear not: An extensive extermination of wasps and other insects has been undertaken.)
On hand at the opening ceremony were performers from Aloft Circus Arts (with two women performing a beautiful acrobatic duet on a purple hoop), Walkabout Theatre (whose giant mask constructions and stilt-walkers decorated the lawn facing the lakefront), and tap master Bril Barrett of M.A.D.D. Rhythms, whose tap and audience-clapping response routine got the presentation off to a spirited start.