IN MEMORIAM: Dan Coffey, Chicago Theater Restoration Architect

The Chicago Theatre, originally the Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre, 1921, Rapp & Rapp, 175 N. State Street. Photo credit: Josh Mellin
Today is the 102th anniversary of The Chicago Theatre! When it opened on October 26, 1921, it was a lavish movie palace known as “The Wonder Theatre of the World.” The first event ever held here was a showing of the 1921 silent film, “The Sign on the Door.” Tweet credit: Choose Chicago

“Daniel Coffey, an architect who led the restoration of the Chicago Theatre in the mid-1980s, kicking off a gradual revival of the North Loop theater district, died Oct. 12, 2023 at his home in Naperville. He was 69.

“Barely 30 when he and his upstart firm, Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, were chosen to redo the landmark Chicago Theatre, saving it from the wrecker’s ball, Coffey later drew up redevelopment plans for the Oriental and Bismarck theaters along Randolph Street, launching a specialty practice that extended across the country.

“Crain’s named Coffey a 40 Under 40 honoree in 1993, three years after his firm, in partnership with another architectural firm in Portland, Ore., was selected to craft a State Street master plan, one of whose tenets came to fruition with the return of traffic to the malled-over thoroughfare. He was directly involved in the conversion of the former Goldblatt’s department store building on South State Street into a mixed-use commercial facility and a Loop campus for DePaul University.

“Coffey was a surprise choice for the Chicago Theatre job, a politically charged project that had stood in the way of the Jane Byrne administration’s North Loop Redevelopment Plan. After Harold Washington became mayor, a preservation group that included developers raised $10 million toward the $26 million projected cost of acquiring and renovating the 3,800-seat theater and its architecturally significant neighbor, the Page Brothers Building. The rest of the money was provided by federal loans guaranteed by the city.

“Coffey’s people skills as much as his architectural expertise powered the project to completion over less than a year’s time ahead of the Sept. 10, 1986, inaugural concert by Frank Sinatra, according to financial backers and preservation advocates like investment banker Richard Rice and architect Margery al Chalabi.

“‘There were, needless to say, personalities he had to weave his way through,’ including the headstrong theater revivalist Ray Shepardson, said Rice. ‘Dan was an eternally calm presence. He certainly was not flamboyant.’ Al Chalabi said Coffey kept the project before the public’s eye, augmenting support and preserving the theater and its marquee as an emblem of the city itself. ‘It stayed a symbol. It hasn’t disappeared,’ she said.

“One of Coffey’s more creative approaches occurred next door at the Page Brothers Building, which had been included in the project in an effort to increase its financial viability. The building promised a steadier stream of commercial rental income, but as the sole Loop survivor among cast-iron facade buildings constructed after the Great Chicago Fire, its renovation came with restrictions befitting its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Coffey figured out a cost-effective way to preserve the facade by replacing the building’s wooden framework with reinforced concrete short of demolishing the structure in the process.

“‘Without the Page Building, the economics of the whole project wouldn’t work,’ Coffey told the Chicago Reader in a 1993 profile that reported, ‘There is a certain unflappable quality about Coffey, a kind of cool, controlled reserve that resists any great display of emotion. Asked to describe himself, he says, ‘I’m very intense.’ He is very direct in conversation, saying exactly what he thinks, no more and no less.’

“And yet . . . the Chicago Theatre prevailed — ‘It’s there; it’s a monument,’ said Rice — establishing Coffey’s reputation.” (Strahler, Crain’s Chicago Business, 10/24/23)

Preservation Chicago extends our condolences to the Coffey family. Ward Miller was active in the effort to save the Chicago Theater and Page Brothers Building in the mid 1980s. He helped organize architecture students at IIT and worked with members of the City Club of Chicago to mount a protest under the theater marquee.

Read the full obituary at Crain’s Chicago Business


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