Central Park Theater
1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road
The Central Park Theater in North Lawndale is Chicago’s first movie palace and the mothership of a remarkable partnership between theater developers Balaban & Katz and architects Rapp & Rapp. While they would go on to build grander and more remarkable movie palaces, it all started with the Central Park Theater. The theater closed in 1971 and the House of Prayer Church of God in Christ’s congregation and leadership has been stewarding it since. Without their intervention, this theater would likely have joined the many demolitions that swept through North Lawndale in the 1970s and 1980s. The repair needs at the theater are growing and the older congregation at House of Prayer is shrinking. The church retained this historic theater for 50 years and now they need help getting it across the restoration finish line.
With collaboration between City agencies, the excellent team of partners on the Central Park Theater Restoration Committee, and prospective investors and developers, this restoration is more than possible. The church is committed to owning a majority interest in the theater to both keep it in community control and also honor the legacy of their founding Pastor Lincoln Scott. The community’s vision is for a cultural center with concerts and programs in the auditorium, cultural tenants in the front second and third floor spaces, and retail uses on the first floor that would support residents and visitors in the area as well as patrons of the Central Park Theater itself. Pastor Robert Marshall and his family continue to carry on the work at the Central Park Theater to keep it standing and thriving. With a little bit of flexibility and creativity, the City of Chicago can help in these efforts to bring the Central Park Theater back to life.
North Lawndale is located on the West Side of Chicago, bounded by Western Avenue to the east, Cermak Road to the south, Cicero Avenue to the west, and the Eisenhower Expressway to the north. It became part of the City of Chicago in 1889 and thanks to local industry in the neighborhood, including Sears Roebuck & Co.’s original administrative offices and mail order fulfillment center, its population was once booming. Between 1910 and 1920, the neighborhood population more than doubled with Russian Jews comprising the majority of the community by 1930.
It was during this early part of the 20th century in North Lawndale that the partnership between Sam Katz and brothers Barney and A.J. Balaban began. The Balabans got their start in the world of cinema when their family began running a North Lawndale nickelodeon where they screened short silent films in cramped spaces filled with hard folding chairs. In 1916, the Balaban brothers decided to partner with A.J’s brother-in-law Sam Katz, also a local theater owner, and together, the Central Park Theater was their first project.
The concept of a movie palace was then largely unfamiliar to the general public. Today, we recognize them as a type of early cinema characterized by opulent luxury, immense seating capacity, the latest in moviegoing conveniences, and cutting-edge technology. Before their advent, however, films were usually watched in dusty nickelodeon storefronts and were regarded as an inferior form of entertainment. Balaban & Katz envisioned something different: a democratic space where people of all classes could be entertained for an hour or a day for the cost of a single ticket. To make this vision a reality, Balaban & Katz enlisted Rapp & Rapp.
Born in Carbondale, Illinois, brothers Cornelius Ward Rapp and George Leslie Rapp were two of many architects in their family. One of their early projects, the Al Ringling Theatre (1915) in Baraboo, Wisconsin, offered a combination of vaudeville and short films and was inspired by the Royal Theatre at Versailles. Its incredible opulence convinced the newly formed Balaban & Katz partnership to hire Rapp & Rapp to design the Central Park Theater.
Rapp & Rapp used the Ringling as their starting point when designing this new commission, adding and refining details that would maximize the customer experience. Better lobby circulation, excellent acoustics, and improved sightlines thanks to a cantilevered mezzanine were all incorporated into the theater’s design. More crucially, Barney Balaban’s time working at Western Cold Storage Company gave him the idea for a completely mechanized air-conditioned theater, as opposed to cruder systems at the time that provided uneven cooling.
In order to convey an overwhelming sense of luxury, Rapp & Rapp took an eclectic approach to the theater’s design. The Central Park Theater’s facade is most easily classified as Mediterranean Revival while the theater’s lobby and auditorium are a mix of French Baroque, Neoclassical, and Renaissance Revival. On October 27, 1917, the Central Park Theater opened its doors and Chicago’s first movie palace was born. Enticed by affordable splendor and mechanized air conditioning – a first for American cinemas – local moviegoers flocked to the Central Park Theater and made it a smash success.
The revenue and name recognition provided by the triumph of the Central Park Theater helped set the stage for Balaban & Katz’s movie palace empire, aided by Rapp & Rapp’s unparalleled architecture. In the years that followed, there was no name more associated with high-end moviegoing than Balaban & Katz. The openings of the Riviera Theatre (1917), the Chicago Theater (1921), the Tivoli Theater (1921), the Uptown Theatre (1925), the Palace Theatre (1926), and the Oriental Theatre (1926) all but guaranteed Balaban & Katz’s place in the history of moviegoing. By 1930, just 13 years after opening their first theater, Balaban & Katz owned more than 50 movie palaces in the Chicago area, with the majority of them designed by Rapp & Rapp.
The Central Park Theater was always a theater of its community. During its earliest years, when North Lawndale was majority-Jewish, it was a popular destination for Jewish moviegoers and even hosted the legendary Benny Goodman in his first ever performance as a solo act. The 1950s saw a large influx of new Black residents move into the neighborhood, prompting the community’s white population to move away. The Central Park Theater, however, still excelled at catering to North Lawndale’s tastes. On top of the month’s screenings, the theater offered a vast lineup of musical performers, many of which were soul, R&B, and gospel artists. Among the many artists that graced the stage of the Central Park Theater were Jerry Butler, Barbara Acklin, and gospel group The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Most notably, the Central Park hosted an early performance of the Jackson 5 before the 1969 release of their debut album Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5.
With the riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a great deal of businesses on Roosevelt Road were destroyed. In the coming months, many of the businesses that survived the riots left the neighborhood. During this period, the Central Park Theater’s facade was also altered. Today, the theater’s grand marquee has been removed, along with the iron rib caps atop the theater’s two towers, box office, and original double door entrances. Still, despite the current need for renovation, the theater’s interior details are incredibly intact, including its magnificent auditorium which was brought back to life in a recent restoration.
The population of North Lawndale has continued to decline and economic development has been slow to return. While Invest South/West and other redevelopment projects led by groups like the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation have had a positive impact on community revitalization, the extent of disinvestment in the area has left North Lawndale in need of more. Despite these challenges, the North Lawndale community is committed to continuing progress and restoring its commercial corridors and residential areas. Nowhere is that more evident than the effort to restore the Central Park Theater.
Blanche Killingsworth, the president of the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, has been an advocate for the Central Park Theater since she first saw a movie there in the 1960s shortly after she migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. She and Dio Alridge, with the School of the Art Institute, began making connections which led to more connections which ultimately led to the creation of The Central Park Theater Restoration Committee. Representatives from Preservation Chicago, Jewish United Fund, Future Firm, School of the Art Institute, the House of Prayer, and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society comprise the Restoration Committee which is helping the church with its plans for the Central Park Theater.
The Central Park Theater might be most endangered but it is also most alive. For decades, North Lawndale underwent devastating disinvestment. Businesses closed their doors. Buildings were demolished along commercial and residential corridors. Yet along Roosevelt Road, the Central Park Theater is still standing.
We are certain that the building would not be standing if not for the congregation’s tireless work to maintain and restore this grand community asset. However, with a dwindling congregation, maintaining and restoring the theater has become a challenge too great for the House of Prayer to take on by itself. Like the North Lawndale community, the church is committed to keeping the theater alive and in community control. Given its 51-year history of stewarding the theater and the thousands of congregant hours that have been invested in the upkeep of the theater, as well as the church’s continued presence in the community, House of Prayer is looking for a development partnership that would allow it to maintain majority control of the theater upon its restoration.
The Restoration Committee participated in Open House Chicago and the Chicago Architectural Biennial in 2021. Architects and engineers have offered pro bono assistance to move pre-development planning forward.
The Central Park Theater Restoration Committee is hard at work to:
1. Establish a separate 501(c)(3) Friends group to assist with fundraising and restoration.
2. Finalize budget estimates for the phased redevelopment.
3. Engage with the community to ensure this community-centered cultural center is improved by a community-driven planning process.
4. Negotiate with potential tenants for the first floor and front upper floors of the building.
5. Plan for a leasing agent to coordinate rental of the auditorium for concerts and special events. The House of Prayer only has need for use of the auditorium for Sunday services.
This is what the Central Park Theater needs:
1. A commitment from the City of Chicago, investors, developers, bankers, and community leaders to join the collaboration to fully restore the Central Park Theater. The proposed Altenheim bike trail vision includes highlighting the Central Park Theater and promoting redevelopment of and around the Central Park Theater. It will be great to see a combined commitment to help realize that vision and offer Chicagoans and tourists a chance to experience the glory of the Central Park Theater.
2. A Chicago Landmark designation. The Chicago Theatre and the Uptown Theatre are both Balaban & Katz/Rapp & Rapp collaborations, so it is logical and reasonable to Landmark the one theater that precedes them all. Such a designation would allow for the application of competitive Adopt-a-Landmark funds and would ensure that, barring extraordinary circumstances, the building cannot be demolished or negatively altered.
3. Emergency stabilization funds to address the life/safety building code violations (estimated at $100,000).
4. Approval to do incremental preservation on the space. If life safety code violations have been addressed in the entire building, we ask the City of Chicago to allow the front floors of the building to be restored into retail and other cultural uses.
24th Ward Alderman Michael Scott has already signed a letter in support of Landmarking the Central Park Theater, and we look forward to continuing to work with him to see this space remain in the control of the community and restored to a vibrant center of culture, food, and community for decades to come.