Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly are making plans to convert Theater on the Lake, the tattered historic facility at Lake Shore Drive and Fullerton Avenue. The structure will be transformed from a summertime only venue that presents remounts of some of Chicago’s finest storefront productions into a year-round facility that could host theater as well as other programming.
According to a press release issued by the Mayor’s office, next month the Chicago Park District will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the development of the Theater on the Lake and will evaluate all the proposals submitted. Improvements to the existing structure to include performance and event space, as well as a restaurant (most likely a cafe rather than a full-scale operation). Proposals will be required to detail renovation plans that include lighting and sound systems, as well as improved sight lines in a new 400-seat performance space. New dressing rooms, with an event space, outdoor seating and restrooms also are to be part of the project. In addition, the main theater entryway will feature an enclosed lobby and box office. The building will be heated and cooled to make year-round operation possible.
While the cost and sources of financing for the project have not yet been announced, Mayor Emanuel said that years ago, while he was still a Congressman, he got an earmark for Theater on the Lake and that this project “is building on that investment by getting a public-private partnership to expand the building amenities and programming.” He added that “the Chicago Park District is open to the ideas of all proposers. We feel that the space has great potential for more cultural programming and special events. Depending on the proposals received, this project could take a variety of funding and revenue approaches, but in almost every potential case, it will be a public-private partnership.”
In an interview Monday the Mayor said there will be no naming rights for the theater. He also emphasized that he saw the reinvention of Theater on the Lake as “part of my strategy for taking culture out into the parks and neighborhoods, as we’ve begun doing with Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, Redmoon and other organizations.”
The renovation will coincide with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Shoreline Protection Project at the Fullerton Avenue beach, and will include a new vehicular drop-off area south of the facility, as well as an addition of six acres of landfill, which, once completed, will enhance access to the theater and other lakefront activities. Theater on the Lake was not part of this Army Corps’ revetment project, which has been federally funded to protect Lake Shore Drive from flooding. Construction timelines and funding for the project will be determined following review of the proposals received.
During the construction period, Theater on the Lake performances will be relocated to park sites throughout the city. Shows and schedule will be announced next spring. Selected as co-artistic curators for the 2014 season are Reginald Lawrence (stage name Shepsu Aakhu), artistic director of MPAACT Theatre, and Halena Kays, artistic director of The Hypocrites and a co-founder of Barrel of Monkeys.
Constructed in 1920, the Theater on the Lake building was originally a recuperation ward for babies suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases, and during World War II, it was used as a USO Center. After the war, the Chicago Park District turned the place into a venue for then-popular barn dances. In 1952, it was converted into the Theater on the Lake performance venue which showcased productions staged by the Park District’s many community theater organizations. Finally, in 1996, the programming evolved into its current format, and the Chicago Park District began inviting professional theater companies to remount their best works.
“Showcasing spectacular views of Lake Michigan, Theater on the Lake is a community treasure that has entertained Chicago residents and visitors for more than six decades,” said Mayor Emanuel in the release. “Upgrading and renovating this venue will enable the theater to be a cultural and entertainment destination all year long.”
Just a short walk from the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Theater on the Lake has long been in a state of disrepair and unrealized potential. It easily could become a gathering place that could be used not only for theater, but for chamber music concerts, small-scale dance events, art film screenings, gallery space, TED Talks, a bookstore. It also could become a destination for locals and tourists, alike — a gathering point for bike-riders and joggers who might stop for hot soup and hot chocolate in the winter, and ice cream and iced coffee in the summer. They might even stumble upon an art event in the process.
In 2007, Chicago’s Morris Architects Planners (the firm responsible for the Black Ensemble, Lookingglass and Steppenwolf spaces) did the beautiful rendering pictured here, suggesting a possible redevelopment of Theater on the Lake with a design that paid elegant homage to the existing building.
“The basic idea was simple,” said Morris, in a recent chat. “Like every lake house, the entrance would be on the water.”
And what about parking?
“Much of the programming will be in the evening when nearby parking will be more available,” said the Mayor. “And of course many of those who stop at the cafe will be walking or using Divvy.”