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Ask Chicagoist: Has the Uptown Been Saved Yet?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on May 26, 2006 2:45PM


i was going past the uptown theater on the el the other day and i remembered that it was the subject of a fierce controversy awhile back. it was due to be demolished or something, and there was a big uprising to save it, restore it and bring it back to its glory days. there was a bunch of people who had formed some sort of neighborhood organization and were trying to raise money to do so. there was scaffolding and stuff around the entrance for a long time, but i see that it's gone now.

whatever happened with that and what's happening now?

2006_05_askuptown.jpgThe Uptown Theatre seems to be one of those buildings that is destined to remain in a sort of limbo for years. When Chicagoist first moved to the city, we lived just around the corner from the theater, and there was a steady influx of petitions and newsletters about its fate. There are constant rumors of it being on the verge of being torn down, or renovated, or sold, or converted into condos (sorry), or transformed into the next space shuttle launch site (maybe).

The 4,500 seat Spanish Revival style movie house was built in 1925 and designed by C.W. and George L. Rapp, the same architects who designed Chicagoist's favorite, the gorgeous Chicago Theatre (they also did the Uptown's neighbor, the Riviera). At the time, the Uptown neighborhood was a bustling entertainment district, and the theater (part of the Balaban and Katz theater chain) was its center. Back in its prime, the Uptown was one of the biggest movie houses in the country, second only to Radio City Music Hall. The theater closed its doors in 1981.

The current status of the project, whatever that project is, seems to be "sit around and twiddle our thumbs." No decisions have been made yet, and there are plenty of legal battles and rumors still surrounding the theater. The scaffolding you remember from a few months ago was there for exterior stabalization repairs and graffiti removal. Under the supervision of a circuit court judge and a court-appointed receiver, the fa├žade was repaired and the terra cotta was removed and stored -- the crumbling posed a potential danger to people walking by.

There are, according to the Tribune, a few national investment companies and developers interested in the theater, even though the cost of renovation is estimated to be close to $40 million. Potential plans include a movie theater, a restaurant, retail space, and a live entertainment venue of some sort. Both state and local tax incentives are being offered, "for a feasible plan that meets civic criteria and expectations." However, it seems that no further steps can be made without first getting over the legal hurdles of determining the current owner of the theater. There are apparently two lenders attempting to foreclose on Lunn Partners (the apparent, albeit bankrupt, owner), and other parties waiting to collect on their assets.

The existence of the theater itself doesn't seem to be too much at risk. The Uptown has made its way onto a variety of lists and registers that will help ensure its survival. It's on 1998's list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the 1996 list of the "10 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois, the Illinois Historic Structures Survey, the National Register of Historic Places, and it's been named as a Chicago Landmark. So while its fate is far from sunny at this point, things seem quite a bit more stable. However, there is still much controversy and mixed opinions about how the fight for preservation has been handled by different organizations who have had a potential stake in the theater's restoration over the years.

A key player in the theater's development (and the likely generator of much of the information you heard about the theater) is the non-profit Friends of the Uptown, which works to raise money, support, and awareness about the Uptown Theatre. They also work with the city and with prospective investors on potential renovation projects, and do emergency maintenance on the building. The organization states on its website that "the building now has reached the hands of a management company very aware of how much of a jewel the building is. The owner is interested in renovation and possible restoration of the theatre so it can serve again some large entertainment use."

The fate of the Uptown is generating some new exposure as well. A new documentary, "Uptown: Portrait of a Palace", opens June 8 at the Portage Theater at 4050 N Milwaukee. The documentary reveals more about the Uptown Theatre's past, and discusses the current renovation efforts.

Image via smussyolay

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