Former Fine Arts Theaters to be renovated

posted by CSWalczak on August 18, 2008 at 7:45 am

CHICAGO, IL — According to this article from the Chicago Tribune the Fine Arts Theaters (also known as the Studebaker and the Playhouse Theaters) are going to be restored by the current owner and returned to use as smaller theatrical venues. They were used as cinemas in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but both have a long history as legitimate theaters.

The colorful owner of the historic Studebaker Theatre inside the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue has recently hired Chicago’s most prominent theater architect and says he plans to quickly restore and reopen the landmark performance venue “without using a penny from the city.”

It’s unclear whether the restoration and renovation will be sufficiently extensive for the theater to attract major shows and function as the Broadway-style house that downtown Chicago so badly needs and is cost-prohibitive to build.

Great news for Chicago and certainly a boost for the Loop area. Read the full article in the Chicago Tribune.

Comments (6)

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 18, 2008 at 8:13 am

Wow, this sounds promising. I’ve been wondering how the next phase of life for this building would shape up.

Broan on August 18, 2008 at 3:51 pm

I hope Coffey does right by it, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on August 22, 2008 at 11:32 am

Why do you say that about Coffey? Just curious. I don’t know much about his work.

Broan on August 22, 2008 at 12:28 pm

His work tends to cut lots of corners and lack historic integrity. See: plastic lights at the Palace, gutting the Biograph, the barely-a-restoration of the Chicago, inaccurate paint at the Oriental,

I do like his new-build work though, and his work at the Auditorium seems fine, and DePaul Center is ok; it just seems that there is perhaps too much, often unnecessary compromise with respect to integrity. Such as when he pretty much destroyed the UIC Campus.

johnsmith on November 17, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Perusing posts and responses is always interesting because anyone can say nearly anything and is not required to be either a qualified expert or to indicate their relationship to that which they are “blogging” about.

To contradict BW, I find Coffey’s work quite good. He is clearly very interested in ensuring that future generations use the older buildings around them rather than seeing them torn down or turned into moribund museum pieces. When they are endangered, flawed or inadequate he seems to choose the right direction and puts them back into use. Who needs more parking lots or retail boxes!

As an Alumni of UIC I think he saved the place by eliminating the un-functional and amazingly discomforting and ugly elements of the campus. No one liked the place and it was a wreck. I personally think he exposed for us some of the few “good elements” of the original design. They may now be in a different and more pleasant context but so too is the Piazza Navona which was once an ancient Roman Circus but is now a beloved city square. We need to let things evolve and not stagnate. Not all old or near old buildings and places are or should be landmarks. We throw the term around quite loosely.

The comments above made me look back at his work and the projects mentioned. I had been in most of them several times at least.

When confronted by an unarguably “great” architectural landmark as at Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium, the care and work he did is done to a museum quality that is as good as any I have seen. The restored arches are astonishing. And from what I hear, the new stage and support spaces work fantastically well. It is clear he respects the true Landmarks when he works on them.

But clearly he takes a broader approach than most preservationists and wants older buildings to live today and in the future, accomplished with a healthy respect for the past.

At the DePaul Center where I sit in on occasional lectures, I am amazed at the transformation and the bustle. The dumpy old Goldblatts is now the near equivalent of Marshall Fields. It has a good exterior and a a very well scaled public interior. Or at least it was until DePaul ruined the new Jackson Boulevard entrance with an overemphasized Barnes Bookstore. It is better than the original but it respects the original.

As to the other downtown theaters, It seems when the original is a lesser, but still grand, original work such as the Oriental or the Palace, or even the Chicago Theaters, the same emphasis on making the best parts of a buildings past live in the present and be adaptable for the future is evident.

I believe only the Auditorium was functioning when he did work on these theaters and it is clear each of the four were beneficiaries of very differing construction budgets.

Restoration is a costly business and it seems unfair to quibble when the available budget is not a part of the evaluation equation. Would we prefer the above theaters be in productive use with new generations using them or quibble about exactness of original colors or building materials. Or should we just gather around a few hunks of lost buildings and mourn. It seems that a saved and productive building is hands down preferable to a demolished one. When the Auditorium was saved by Harry Weese, He didn’t have the money to restore the arches. When Coffey returned he did and was able to bring them to full glory.

If they are gone the colors matter not.

25 years ago I would never have expected to be able to see live shows in those halls. Now the seats are comfortable and spacious (not original) and the other audience comforts pretty well satisfied. From the complexity of the shows I’ve seen in them, it seems the same is true from the stage and stage support areas.

At the Biograph, I poked my head in before work began. There was no theater or lobby remaining on the inside. I searched this site and it is clear that the original was pretty nondescript at best. Now Victory Gardens has a state of the art playhouse that is perhaps one of the best in the city for seeing intimate plays. Comfortable, easy to hear and see, generally a pleasant and fun experience. It also seems to work very well and the exterior is well restored. It was never going to be a one screen movie house ever again. I think the result is a great and appropriate compromise.

So in conclusion it is easy to be an armchair critic but the body of work and its quality for Coffey is considerable and I’d trust him with any large preservation or adaptive re-use project. I sense he uses the dollars available very efficiently and pragmatically.

Broan on November 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm

I never questioned whether Coffey’s interest was in saving buildings, but his approach cannot be called preservation or restoration, it’s adaptive reuse with a vaguely historicist spin.

You’re creating false dichotomies. There is ground between creating a museum and complete reconfiguration.

The problem with UIC was not the design, but the lack of maintenance. That’s why it was dark, forboding, and grimy. UIC’s overall plan was a one of a kind work by a cutting edge architect. Now it’s more workable, but architecturally it’s disjointed and mangled. A preservation approach would have taken the original elements and modified them to work properly. This is why when a Frank Lloyd Wright building leaks, we don’t put a pitched roof on it.

You imply that “most preservationists” are not concerned with making “older buildings to live today and in the future, accomplished with a healthy respect for the past.” Nothing’s further from the truth; all preservation work is concerned with making them live today and in the future, that’s what it’s all about. Coffey just doesn’t appear to be concerned with historical accuracy.

The DePaul Center is a fine, functional building with some excellent spaces, particularly the Law School lobby. And unquestionably it’s better than it was after Goldblatt’s was done with it. But it, too, lacks many of the features it had when it opened as Rothschild’s.

At those theaters, he cut corners and left them less grand than they were on opening day. At the Chicago he had to work on a shoestring budget; the restoration work there amounted to little more than heavy cleaning, removal of the 50s junk, and a new coat of paint; that’s why it was intended to resemble the 1933 appearance. It was cheaper. At the Oriental, the colors got toned down – that’s just imposing your own taste on a historic structure. Parts of the upper lobby went unrestored. I’m not a strict preservationist, I don’t mind the way the lobby space and stage was reconfigured, but the paint was pointlessly inaccurate. At the Palace you have cheap plastic lights.

And again you create a false dichotomy; there’s not a choice between accurate colors and demolition, that’s a matter of will and a drop in the bucket of overall funding. It’s not at all unfair to quibble. It’s the difference between a restoration that reflects the building’s true character and a compromised game of dress-up.

I was attending DePaul during the entire Biograph work, so I am completely aware of what was what. Here’s a photo from the 80s showing the auditorium: View link Here’s a photo showing the original appearance: View link The whole thing had been remodeled a lot, but the fact is that there was a good amount of plaster and other historic fabric like tile work in the lobby (still there under the carpet.) If you want an example of how it could have been reused and retained what was remained, go to the Broadway theater at Broadway and Belmont. Same era, similar style, and they managed to not have to rip it out completely. A job like that probably wouldn’t have forced Victory Gardens into dire straits, too. I personally asked Dan if there was ever any consideration towards restoration, and he told me that it was a matter of location, not having to build a new structure, and being able to use restoration tax credits. It’s well documented that the exterior wasn’t even accurate; Hollywood was a lot closer to correct when they had to make it over for the movies. Nobody said it had to be a single screen theater. It could have been a club, a performing arts venue like the broadway or vic, a bookstore – any number of uses could have helped it retain the things it was landmarked for, the Dillinger connection, its appearance, and an example of an early neighborhood movie house. As it stands, it looks different from any time in the past, including Dillinger’s era, and there are better-preserved examples of movie houses. It’s a pretty shell someone stuck a beautiful new theater in, but it’s not an either/or proposition.

The Auditorium is a different matter and it shows that he can do the job right if he has the resources and pressure to. And I really like almost all of Coffey’s new construction work. And I think that his historic work is nice, but it could be so much better. I agree that he does use available money efficiently and pragmatically, but one of the whole ideas of preservation is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money changing what’s already there to come out with a quality product.

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