It’s past time to save the Uptown Theatre

It’s past time to save the Uptown Theatre

Photo by Eric Holubow

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Even before it went dark nearly four decades ago, the Uptown Theatre was in decline—the North Side’s own architectural Miss Havisham, outfitted in its decaying Jazz Age finery. Once a dazzling movie theater that represented the outer limits of extravagant Roaring ’20s design, the 4,500-seat colossus by the 1970s had faded, playing host to Grateful Dead concerts and closed-circuit boxing matches. Then, in 1981, the doors shut—and since then, a generation of community activists has worked against the odds to see that those doors don’t remain shut for good.

As Crain’s contributor Mark Guarino reports in this week’s issue, time is not on the preservationists’ side. “If this isn’t resolved soon, this building will continue to deteriorate,” says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

Ald. James Cappleman, 46th, knows this and has been pushing uphill to make Uptown the centerpiece of a revivified entertainment district that could encompass the nearby Riviera Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom and the Green Mill lounge. With the backing of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust and the cooperation of the Uptown’s current owners—the execs who run Chicago concert promoter Jam Productions—Cappleman came tantalizingly close to making his dream a reality in 2015, only to have the plan for a $120 million restoration featuring multipurpose entertainment, dining and retail crumble before his eyes. The Emanuel administration, after an intensive two-year effort, walked away from the project when the Infrastructure Trust underwent a changing of the guard.

It’s true that restoring a structure as neglected as the Uptown is the kind of project that would make even the most dedicated preservationist blanch. In 2014, 6 inches of ice covered the grand stairway and 4 feet of water rose in the basement. Broken windows, animal infestation, vandalism and plaster-killing summer humidity followed. In 2008, the building’s terra cotta was removed, tagged and stored for its protection from further damage.

In short, the place is a mess. But it is also the kind of space that just doesn’t get built anymore, with an ornate staircase and lobby, a 140-foot ceiling, a 70-foot-wide stage, lounges, vestibules and balconies. And the city has already begun investing in the kind of close-by infrastructure that could help make the intersection of Lawrence Avenue, Racine Avenue and Broadway an entertainment destination. That includes the $203 million renovation of the CTA’s nearby Wilson el station and plans to rebuild four more Red Line stations. Next to the Lawrence stop—steps from the Uptown—the city is studying the potential for an upscale hotel.

Yet none of this investment will fully revive the Uptown neighborhood if the movie palace at its center continues to rot away. City Hall should recommit itself to the Uptown effort—whether that means resurrecting the abandoned Infrastructure Trust plan or reaching a new deal with the Jam execs and other neighborhood stakeholders. This project is a big lift, the kind that can only happen when leaders display the political will to get it done. But the Uptown project is worth it.

How do we know? New York City pulled off a similar feat with the revival of the Kings Theatre, designed by the same architects who created the Uptown. The city was the largest investor in the Kings revival because it saw the theater as the linchpin to rebuilding part of Brooklyn. The project launched in 2008, and since reopening in 2015 it now hosts 200 to 250 live performances a year. Major retailers like Nike and Gap have opened nearby and a boutique hotel is also in the works.

If it can happen in New York, it can happen here. Emanuel should show he’s up for the challenge.