THREATENED: Central Park Theater, A 2022 Chicago 7 Most Endangered

Central Park Theater, 1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road. Photo Credit: Deborah Mercer
Central Park Theater, 1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Central Park Theater, 1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Central Park Theater, 1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Central Park Theater

1917, Rapp & Rapp, 3535 W. Roosevelt Road

Overview

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.

Threat

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.

Recommendations

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.

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.

Read the full Central Park Theater article from the 2022 Chicago 7 Book including history, threats, and recommendations at www.PreservationChicago.org.

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