“Attempting to restore some of the city’s most architecturally significant but severely rundown theaters can be a dramatic affair.
“At the Uptown Theatre, Fairpoint Development backed out of the high-profile project led by Jam Productions that garnered $40 million in public money and enthusiastic support from elected officials. The Congress Theater fell into foreclosure after a major investor accused its developer of defaulting on $14 million in loans. And other ventures, such as the Ramova Theater in Bridgeport, stalled while the pandemic created uncertainty about the financial viability of entertainment and performing arts venues.
“Nevertheless, there’s a new campaign brewing, this time in North Lawndale, seeking to do what similar efforts have struggled to achieve for decades. And backers hope their vision is distinct enough to help finance an ambitious project that could cost up to $25 million and aims to transform the deteriorating Central Park Theater—the first “movie palace” built by cinema moguls Balaban & Katz and architects Rapp & Rapp in 1917—from a largely dormant 1,800-seat auditorium owned by a small church into a bustling community and commercial hub in the economically stunted West Side neighborhood.
“The multilevel theater with ornate balcony boxes is thought to be the first that offered mechanized air conditioning to guests—though it now lacks any HVAC system—and served as a blueprint for other luxurious movie palaces developed by Balaban & Katz including the Chicago, Uptown, Riviera and Oriental (now Nederlander) theaters. Rich red brick and intricate terracotta-lined towers adorn the Central Park’s facade, which sits in the 3500 block of West Roosevelt Road across from an abandoned liquor store and next to an empty lot overgrown with grass. Many of its original Mediterranean Revival features in the grand lobby and vast auditorium remain intact. Renowned performers such as clarinetist Benny Goodman and the Jackson 5 graced the stage during its better days.
“‘It served a purpose in the past, it can serve a purpose in the future,’ said Blanche Killingsworth, co-founder and president of the North Lawndale Historical & Cultural Society, one of the nonprofit organizations spearheading renewed efforts to renovate the theater, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
“Though a diverse coalition of advocates including Preservation Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Jewish United Fund have joined forces to uplift Central Park Theater, it faces the same precarious fate as theater restoration projects that haven’t come to fruition despite being better known and securing more funding, including desirable tax-increment financing (advocates say they haven’t yet explored what TIF money might be available). In addition to those challenges, Central Park Theater has its own unique hurdles. There are outstanding code violations, the building needs about $50,000 to make emergency repairs before winter conditions exacerbate water damage and it’s located in a blighted area that might be less attractive to investors.
“But those issues aren’t enough to spook the advocates, who’ve formed the Central Park Theater Restoration Committee and are rallying for the building to receive city landmark status, which would help raise awareness about its history and open the door to more grants and financial benefits. They say they’re also committed to ensuring that the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ, which has controlled the property since 1971, retains majority ownership, even if that deters potential development partners, according to Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago.
“Killingsworth, who helped bring the committee together, said the theater is more than just an architectural marvel and pointed to its cultural significance in a neighborhood that evolved from an industrialized center, anchored by the original Sears Roebuck headquarters, to a low-income Black community after the 1950s that suffered permanent damage in riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination.
“Killingsworth, 69, reminisced about coming to the elaborate theater as a child after she moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1962 during the Great Migration that saw Black families like hers lay down new roots across Northern cities. Unlike in the Jim Crow South, which relegated Black movie viewers to upper floors with inferior views, Killingsworth was allowed to sit on the main level of the Central Park Theater to watch films and live performances. ‘I still feel that grandeur when I come in,’ she said.
The push to rehab this historic Chicago theater is gaining renewed traction; The latest effort to save Balaban & Katz’s first movie palace in North Lawndale could cost up to $25 million and would incorporate a community center. But will it go the way of other floundering theater preservation projects? Elyssa Cherney, Crain’s Chicago Business, 11/10/21
An early movie palace in North Lawndale deserves landmark status; A historic West Side venue that led to the lavish movie palaces of the 1920s should be preserved, Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, 10/30/21