WIN: After 35 Years of Advocacy, Uptown Theatre Restoration Announced!

Uptown Theatre Interior, 4816 N. Broadway, Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Historic Photo

Uptown Theatre Interior, 4816 N. Broadway, Photo Credit: Eric Holubow

Uptown Theatre Balcony, 4816 N. Broadway, Photo Credit: Eric Holubow

Uptown Theatre view from stage, 4816 N. Broadway, Photo Credit: Eric Holubow

A Palace of Enchantment, Balaban & Katz Magazine, August 17, 1925, www.compassrose.org

After 35 years, the Uptown Theatre will finally be restored! Shuttered since December 1981 following water damage from burst frozen pipes, the effort to save this outstanding building from demolition has been long, arduous, with many false starts, and unfulfilled promises, but the preservation community never gave up on the dream of one day seeing the Uptown Theatre restored. Most recently, Friends of the Uptown and Preservation Chicago sponsored an online petition to encourage the restoration of the Uptown Theatre that had generated 10,671 signatures to-date.

As Blair Kamin wrote in his Chicago Tribune Column, “local preservation groups — Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and Friends of the Uptown [formed in 1998) — and the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, which in 1996 put the Uptown on its list of the nation’s most endangered places, deserve credit for the tenacity they exhibited in fighting for what many assumed was a lost cause. City officials also get kudos for laying the infrastructure groundwork that could help a renovated Uptown succeed.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18)

“This is the fulfillment of a promise,” said Emanuel in an interview Thursday. “When I was still mayor-elect, I talked about creating an entertainment district in Uptown. Our investments in culture are one of our best drivers of economic growth and job creation in our neighborhoods.” (Jones, Chicago Tribune, 6/28/19)

According to Jerry Mickelson back in 2011, “There is a new energy that has been infused by Mayor Emanuel, whose vision is to create an entertainment district that will provide an unprecedented economic and cultural development opportunity for this great neighborhood,” Mickelson said. He added that both 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman and 48th Ward Alderman James Cappleman are also working hard to see the Uptown reopen and be a catalyst for enlivening the district.” (Lynn Becker, ArchitectureChicagoPlus, 12/18/2011)

The developer is Chicago-based Farpoint Development in joint venture with Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions, which purchased the Uptown Theatre in 2008 for $3.2 million after a court-ordered foreclosure sale. Many of the details of the plan remain undisclosed. The restoration architect has not yet been selected. The repair cost is estimated at $75 million. Farpoint is led by Steve Goodman, a co-founder of Sterling Bay which is one of Chicago’s largest real estate development firms. Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat are co-founders and co-owners of Jam Productions.

This effort is being significantly supported by the City of Chicago through city, state and federal sources. “ The mayor’s office said the piecemeal financing for the Uptown Theatre comes from an array of public and private sources: $14 million in financing through the State of Illinois’ Property Assessed Clean Energy Act; $13 million in tax-increment financing; $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $8.7 million in federal tax credits; and $3.7 million in the City of Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark funds. Jam and Farpoint are kicking in the remaining $26 million in a yet-to-be-determined mix of debt and equity. The restoration scheme also includes $6 million in streetscape improvements to portions of North Broadway, and Lawrence and Wilson avenues and Argyle Street, including a new pedestrian plaza and public stage, located just south of Lawrence and Broadway.” (Jones, Chicago Tribune, 6/28/19)

The Uptown Theatre in the Spanish Baroque Revival style is one of grandest and most opulent “Picture Palace” theaters ever built in America. It was the crown jewel of the Chicago-based Balaban & Katz theater chain and is one of Chicago’s greatest movie theaters. The Uptown Theater cost $4 million in 1925 and was “ Built For All Time.”

As described in the Balaban & Katz Magazine from August 17, 1925, “By that they mean that rosy, romantic and beautiful plans of youth never come true. But here is the Uptown Theatre. It is beyond human dreams of loveliness, rising in mountainous splendor, achieving the overpowering sense of tremendous size and exquisite beauty – a thing that comes miraculously seldom.

Entering it you pass into another world. The streets, the clangor of iron on cement, the harsh outlines of the steel thickets we call the city, all disappear. Your spirit rises and soars among the climbing pillars that ascend six stories to the dome ceiling of the colossal lobby. It becomes gay and light under the spell of the warm coloring that plays across heavily carved and ornamented wall as myriads of unseen lights steal out from mysterious hidden coves to illumine the interior with romantic sundown colors.

The Uptown Theatre is like a castle in Old Spain upon which countless artists and sculptors have lavished their talents. Behind the carved Travertine marble, the colossal pillars that gleam with bright shields and deep rich efflorescence, behind the velvet hangings and Spanish shawls, behind the magnificent mural paintings, the curving ceilings with their griffins, their heads of laughing kings, behind the charming little windows of Hispaniola that open on the great auditorium behind all that carries you into the spirit and mood of quaint, rich, grand Old Spain…” (Balaban & Katz Magazine, 8/17/25, page 1)

The Uptown Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, is a Designated Chicago Landmark, and is a contributing building to the Uptown Square Landmark District.
Located at 4816 N. Broadway, the Uptown and designed by the acclaimed theater architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp. At the time it opened, the grandiose tagline used to advertise the Uptown Theatre was “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City”. At 46,000-square-foot, the Uptown is actually slightly larger than an acre! At the grand opening, the orchestra pit housed 60 musicians on an immense elevator platform, and the theatre was equipped with the most expensive Wurlitzer grande theatre organ built up to that time “with 10,000 pipes ranging in size from smokestack of an ocean-liner to a lead-pencil hidden behind the walls on either side of the proscenium arch.” (Balaban & Katz Magazine, 8/17/25, page 6)

In its first five years of operation, more than 20 million Chicagoans passed through its doors. The massive Uptown Theater had 4,381 seats and is said to be among the largest movie palaces ever built in the US. Removable seating on the main level could enable people to stand at events, bringing the overall capacity to 5,800. It is larger than the seating capacity of most other large Chicago theaters including the Arie Crown Theater (4,250), the Auditorium Theater (3,901), Chicago Theatre (3,600), the Oriental Theatre (2,253), the Cadillac Palace Theatre (2,344), and the Majestic/CIBC Theatre (1,800). The Congress Theatre, which is currently being restored, is projected to have a capacity of 3,500 for general admission shows and 2,600 for shows with seating.

Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions credits Chicago officials and longtime volunteers for the Uptown surviving decades of deferred maintenance and neglect through a succession of owners and receivership. Also, the City of Chicago invested in more than $1 million in court-ordered stabilization work and repairs, which removed and stored decorative terra cotta and replaced the system of pipes through which the rain and snowmelt from 12 roof surfaces drains. It was this system’s failure in the arctic winters of the early 1980s which caused water damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls. (Lynn Becker, ArchitectureChicagoPlus, 12/18/2011)

“We’ve come very far in the 50 years since the demolition of the Garrick Theater and Chicago Stock Exchange building when your common citizen may not have been involved in architectural preservation,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago. “But this is another example of a project that has so much good potential, in so many ways and something that could positively impact the entire Uptown Entertainment District.” (LaTrace, 8/22/17)

If the Uptown really does wind up being reborn, it will mark a major change from 1961, which witnessed the destruction of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater, a masterpiece of the first Chicago School of Architecture, and its replacement by a parking garage. Along with the demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building in the early 1970s, that traumatic event helped lead to the creation of today’s strong preservation movement in Chicago and the Uptown’s bright new prospects. (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18)

Additional Reading

Column: It’s great that the Uptown Theatre has a future. What kind of future will it be?, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18

Uptown Theatre will be restored: $75 million plan unveiled for grand palace on North Side, Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 6/28/18

Uptown Theater will be restored to 1925 glamor with $75 million, Sara Freund, Curbed Chicago, 6/29/18

Chicago’s legendary Uptown Theatre to come back to life?, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/26/18 

On the 30th anniversary of its closing, Andy Pierce reminds us what’s so magical about the Uptown Theatre, Lynn Becker, Architecture Chicago Plus, 12/18/11

Hidden Movie Palaces, Geoffrey Baer Interview, Chicago Tonight WTTW Chicago, April 26, 2011 VIDEO

Uptown Theatre, Linda Winke, Chicago Architecture Foundation

A Palace of Enchantment, Balaban & Katz Magazine, August 17, 1925, Compassrose.org

A Second Act For The Uptown Theater?, Odette Yousef, WBEZ Chicago, September 19, 2014, RADIO

Inside the Uptown Theatre’s Unique features, Chicago Tribune, 8/7/15

Link to Save the Uptown Theatre Petition

Preservationists: The Uptown Theatre needs to become a priority, AJ LaTrace, Curbed Chicago, 8/22/17

It’s Time To Restore The Historic Uptown Theatre, Petition Urges, Stephen Gossett, Chicagoist, 7/7/17

Uptown: Portrait of a Palace (25 minute documentary, 2006)

Friends of the Uptown Theatre Website

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