The Chicago Theatre turned 100 years old last week, which is a milestone worth celebrating, given the venue narrowly dodged demolition to become a cornerstone of the downtown live theater district.
With the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., motion picture theater owners Balaban & Katz and their architects, C.W. & George Rapp, created a striking French Revival movie palace that put on a show before the the film even began.
But many of the elements perfected in the Chicago Theatre were brought to bear by the same team four years earlier with the construction of their first movie palace, the Central Park Theater, in the North Lawndale community.
There’s a movement underway to seek landmark status for the building, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road, which has been House of Prayer Church of God in Christ since 1971.
We’d like to see this happen. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but a local designation would help draw more attention to this important but lesser-known structure.
And it certainly couldn’t hurt current efforts to raise money to reopen and restore the 104-year-old building.
Nation’s first mechanically air conditioned theater
Built in 1917, the exterior of the three-story brick and terra cotta building on Roosevelt Road isn’t visually lavish compared with the movie palaces Balaban & Katz and their architects Rapp & Rapp would create a few short years later — although the interior comes pretty close.
But in their first theater, B&K and the Rapps deliver many of the goods that would make their venues famous.
For instance, the 1,800-seat Central Park was the nation’s first mechanically air-conditioned theater. And the Rapps took advantage of new high-strength steel to design balconies that didn’t need main floor support columns.
The unobstructed views became a feature of the dozens of B&K theaters that would follow, including the Uptown, the Tivoli — located on 63rd Street near Cottage Grove Avenue — and the Chicago Theatre.
In 1926, B&K merged with Famous Players-Lasky, creating a new company, Paramount-Publix, that was then the world’s largest theater operator.
“As a result, the innovations pioneered at the Central Park — the design of lavish theater buildings in outlying commercial centers, live stage shows, outstanding service and the novel use of air conditioning — were applied on a national scale to hundreds of theaters from coast to coast,” according to the National Register nomination documents from 2005.
Built when North Lawndale was primarily Jewish, the theater remained a community focal point when Black people became the majority of the neighborhood’s residents beginning in the 1960s.
Under a new banner as House of Prayer Church of God in Christ, the venue became a popular spot for major gospel music acts of the day such as Shirley Caesar and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the church’s current senior pastor, Robert Marshall, told Block Club Chicago in 2020.
“It was known as the gospel headquarters of Chicago,” Marshall said. “All of those top groups, that’s where they came, to House of Prayer. Everybody in Chicago knew.”
A comeback for the old Central Park?
The former theater isn’t under threat of demolition, but it is in disrepair — so much so, the building is shuttered due to code violations.
Though worn, the interior retains much of its original magnificence, however.
A coalition of North Lawndale residents, House of Prayer, preservationists and others have formed the Central Park Theater Restoration Committee to raise money and awareness about the building’s history and figure out possible future uses.
City landmark status would significantly protect the building from demolition while this important work gets done.
Given Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration’s plans to redevelop the Ogden Avenue corridor in North Lawndale through the Invest South/West program, it’s clear the city has its eyes on the neighborhood.
We hope a landmark designation protecting the former Central Park Theater can happen as well.
And back to the Chicago Theatre, reaching the century mark last week.
The theater was slated for demolition in 1985. Then, Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates stepped in and spent millions restoring it.
Frank Sinatra sang at the theater’s 1986 reopening.
That’s the kind of ending we’d like to see for the old Central Park.
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