The Forum, located at 324 E. 43rd St. in the Bronzeville, is the city’s oldest assembly and social hall. In its heyday, it hosted some of the biggest names in Black history.

The Forum, at 324 E. 43rd St. in Bronzeville, is believed to be the city’s oldest assembly and social hall. In its heyday, it hosted some of the biggest names in Black history.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Forum: Historic gathering place could bring Bronzeville together again

The owner of The Forum hopes renovating and reopening the Bronzeville icon will bring new life to an area once known for its economic, social and cultural vibrancy.

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A two-story building looms over 43rd Street in Bronzeville. Three murals — of artist Margaret Burroughs, jazz singer Nat “King” Cole and poet Gwendolyn Brooks — are painted where windows used to be. Photographs commemorating a history of Black voices adorn the outside walls.

This is The Forum.

The iconic building stood empty and neglected for decades. Now, there is hope for its return.

Built in 1897, The Forum, 324 E 43rd St., became a vital part of a commercial neighborhood known as the city’s Black Metropolis, which flourished from the 1920s to the 1950s. In that time, The Forum hosted some of America’s most prominent Black figures.

Civil rights gatherings were held there. The Black Elks Fraternity met in the building for decades. And Cole, the jazz legend (who lived only a few blocks over), used to serenade audiences in the hall upstairs.

1964 photo of The Forum in Bronzeville, 324 E. 43rd St.

This photo of The Forum, taken in 1964, shows how much the building has changed. Back then, it was on a busy commercial strip, and its retail storefronts along 43rd Street were leased by two small businesses — a dry cleaner and a hardware store.

Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center/University of Chicago Library

But by 1975, The Forum was closed, and memories of its history and significance faded.

By 2011, with bricks sometimes falling from the roof, it was headed for demolition.

That’s when Bernard Loyd stepped in. He lived just a block away, and had been fascinated by The Forum for years.

Loyd’s development firm, Urban Juncture, had been involved in other revitalization efforts in Bronzeville, including commercial properties on 51st Street.

His firm also had tried to buy The Forum, without success. With demolition looming, he tried again, and this time, the owner let him inside, where Loyd saw three decades’ worth of damage.

Boarded up windows let in little light. There were safety hazards — fallen wooden beams, rusted metal and unstable stairs. Upstairs, a rotting piano was sinking through the floor.

Later, Loyd would find that one part of the roof had plants growing out of it.

When Bernard Loyd entered The Forum in 2011, he was met with a sight of complete disrepair. In one room on the second floor, a piano was sinking into the floor.

When Bernard Loyd entered The Forum in 2011, he was met with a sight of complete disrepair. In one room on the second floor, a piano was sinking into the floor.

Provided

Still, he saw the potential, and a deal was struck.

“When you walk into the hall, it just grabs you,” said Loyd. “You can just feel the embodied history and its spirit.”

Inspired by what he was learning about The Forum’s history, Loyd decided to restore the hall, bringing back its former glory — and with it, the neighborhood.

“I’ve known this building for 25 years ... and I always viewed it as being central to the revitalization of 43rd Street,” Loyd said. “It was clear to me we ought to figure out how to save it.”

Loyd paid $100,000 for The Forum, using some of his retirement money. Since then, Urban Juncture has cleaned up the inside (just removing debris took two years, he said), replaced the roof and done other work to stabilize the building. In all, $25 million has been budgeted for the renovation.

Restoration work at The Forum is shown underway in October.

Restoration work at The Forum is shown underway in October.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“There’s actually quite a bit of sophisticated structural engineering technology in The Forum roofs,” Loyd said, explaining the roof has three sections, supported by five huge trusses.

Windows were replaced, and a lot of masonry needed fixing — that, Loyd said, was unexpected. But he’s an optimist, and saw beyond the debris.

“I know the issues, but I can also imagine what it can be,” he said. “And the heart of it is the hall. It’s just such a unique place.”

Lately, work has focused on the main hall stage, where acts like Cole and Muddy Waters performed. In 2019, The Forum was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Urban Juncture has secured both federal historic tax credits and state tax credits.

Singer and jazz pianist Nat “King” Cole, shown with his wife, Maria Hawkins Cole, arriving in London on May 12, 1960.

Singer and jazz pianist Nat “King” Cole, shown with his wife, Maria Hawkins Cole, arriving in London in 1960, once lived near The Forum in Bronzeville and would perform there.

Associated Press

One day, Loyd was working on the roof when a man stopped and said his mother had taken him to The Forum when he was younger, where he met Diana Ross and the Supremes, as well as the Jackson 5. Someone else told Loyd about seeing Paul Robeson perform there in 1952.

The Forum, Loyd said, “should celebrate the past, but we want to be actively creating the future, we want it to be alive.”

Loyd has worked with Chicago Film Archives to create “Everyday People,” projecting home movies and other content onto the building’s west side, visible to CTA Green Line riders. CFA hopes to complete the project by November.

Bernard Loyd and his team have been working for 10 years to renovate and repair The Forum — including the main hall, where performances by jazz artists like Nat King Cole once took place.

Bernard Loyd and his team have been working for 10 years to renovate and repair The Forum — including the main hall, where performances by jazz artists, including Nat “King” Cole, once took place.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

They’re also working with Gumbo Media to create the Metropolis Gallery to celebrate the Black Metropolis community that once beckoned Black families from around the country. The artwork would be displayed at The Forum in a space dedicated to artistic and community development.

Matthew Manning is co-founder of Gumbo Media, which focuses on sharing Black stories. The project, he said, is an emotional experience.

“When we walk through that space, it’s haunting,” Manning said. “We’ve heard people on our team say it’s the most connected they’ve felt to their own history, and I think that says a lot when it’s an abandoned building.”

The interior of The Forum, 324 E. 43rd St in Bronzeville, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

A lot of the work done so far at The Forum has focused on the stage, where so many great performers appeared, as well as the roof, which needed to be replaced to protect the interior from further damage.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Manning and his team also are considering what types of programming they can include in their space. He said they want to tell the history of the Black Metropolis, but also advance opportunities for residents.

So they’re considering events such as headshot sessions; graphic design and website development; even their monthly book club, GumboLit.

Manning said the goal is to use the space to “excavate” The Forum’s history while also “paving the way for a future that builds back up a metropolis.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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