WIN: Uptown Theater Restoration Plan Receives City Council Approval!

Uptown Theatre, 4816 N. Broadway, People line up to see the Uptown Theatre during opening week in August 1925, Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Historic Photo
Uptown Theatre Exterior Existing Conditions. Photo Credit: Eric Holubow

On November 13, 2018, the Chicago Community Development Commission voted to approve the $75 million rehabilitation of the long-vacant Uptown Theatre. After decades of false starts and unfulfilled promises, this marks an highly important and tangible step forward for the restoration of this magnificent building.

Almost exactly 37 years ago, the Uptown Theatre hosted its last concert on Dec. 19, 1981 before being closed due to water damage from frozen pipes. The effort to save this “lost cause” from demolition has been long and arduous, but the preservation community never gave up on the dream of one day seeing the Uptown Theatre restored. In 1991 after a decade of advocacy, the Chicago preservation community succeeded in having the Uptown Theatre designated a Chicago Landmark. No one at that time could have guessed that the building would remain shuttered for nearly 30 more years!

Recently, Friends of the Uptown and Preservation Chicago sponsored an online petition to encourage the restoration of the Uptown Theatre that generated 10,778 signatures before it was closed having achieved its goal of seeing the building restored! Preservationists will need to wait a little longer, as construction work is expected to begin in August 2019 with a grand reopening scheduled for early 2021.

As Blair Kamin wrote in his Chicago Tribune column, “ local preservation groups — Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and Friends of the Uptown [formed in 1998) — and the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, which in 1996 put the Uptown on its list of the nation’s most endangered places, deserve credit for the tenacity they exhibited in fighting for what many assumed was a lost cause. City officials also get kudos for laying the infrastructure groundwork that could help a renovated Uptown succeed .” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman have long understood the importance of the Uptown Theatre. During his first campaign, Mayor Emanuel spoke about his interest in creating an Uptown Music District that would include a restored Uptown Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theatre, the Green Mill and other entertainment options. Recently, the Double Door announced plans to reopen in Uptown in the historic Wilson Theater Building and Baton Show Lounge announced plans to reopen in the historic Uptown Broadway Building. Additional steps to prepare Uptown for this exciting next phase have included the creation of the Uptown Square Chicago Landmark District in 2016 which protected 57 buildings, the restoration of the Gerber Building and the new Wilson Street ‘L” station, and streetscape improvements including a planned new pedestrian plaza and public stage, located just south of Lawrence and Broadway.

Mayor Emanuel said, “ The Uptown Theatre is more than a theater. It’s an iconic community anchor. The restored building will be the centerpiece of the new, revitalized entertainment district that will attract hundreds of thousands of show-goers while promoting continued economic growth for the surrounding neighborhood .” (Chicago DPD, 11/20/18)

Ald. James Cappleman said, “The renovation of this magnificent theatre has been my number one priority since I was re-elected. The Uptown Theatre restoration will be an economic engine for Uptown, bringing not only hundreds of jobs for residents, but also youth employment training. This project will improve the neighborhood for decades to come.” (Chicago DPD, 11/20/18)

Uptown Theatre Interior, 4816 N. Broadway. Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Historic Photo
Mayor Emanuel announces the Uptown Theatre restoration project in the Grand Lobby in June 2018. Photo Credit: Chicago DPD
Uptown Theatre Grand Lobby Existing Conditions. Photo Credit: Eric Holubow

“ The Uptown Theatre is one of the greatest theaters in America, and it’s the premier property in Uptown. Its restoration will be expensive but the theater is a treasure that must be saved, ” said Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson. “ Assistance from all levels of government — local, state, and federal — is necessary to get this project over the finish line. Future generations will not forgive those who do not save this magnificent palace, because a venue like the Uptown Theatre will never be built again .” (Chicago DPD, 11/20/18)

The complicated financing package requires significant private and public support including approximately $13 million in Tax Increment Financing through the Lawrence/Broadway TIF district, $14 million in State of Illinois’ Property Assessed Clean Energy Act PACE financing, $3 million in Adopt-A-Landmark funds, $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $9 million in federal historic tax credits, and a mix of private debt and equity from development team, Farpoint Development and Jam Productions.

The developer is Chicago-based Farpoint Development in joint venture with Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions, which purchased the Uptown Theatre in 2008 for $3.2 million after a court-ordered foreclosure sale. Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat are co-founders and co-owners of Jam Productions. Farpoint is led by Steve Goodman, a co-founder of Sterling Bay which is one of Chicago’s largest real estate development firms.

The restoration architect will be Chicago-based Lamar Johnson Collaborative supported by Schuler Shook, a well-known national theater consultant whose previous projects include the historic Palace Theatre in St. Paul, the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, and the Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago. (Jones, Chicago Tribune, 11/13/18)

“George Halik, principal at Lamar Johnson, said the intent was to install a new marquee that would replicate the original, which is different from the more recent one with which most Chicagoans are most familiar.” (Jones, Chicago Tribune, 11/13/18)

Interior improvements are expected to include new elevators, concessions, building systems and related work that will increase capacity from approximately 4,100 to 5,800 people. Exterior work will repair the building’s masonry and terra cotta, and improve marquees and related signage, among other repairs and improvements.

“ It’s been more than 35 years since the theater closed to the public, which makes this the most anticipated restoration project in the City’s history ,” said DPD Commissioner David L. Reifman. “ The Uptown is the last and largest movie palace in the United States that hasn’t been demolished or restored and its re-opening is going to be recognized by preservationists, entertainment entities, cultural organizations and cities around the world. ” (Chicago DPD, 11/20/18)

A Palace of Enchantment, Balaban & Katz Magazine, August 17, 1925, www.compassrose.org

In the Spanish Baroque Revival style, the Uptown Theatre is one of the grandest and most opulent “Picture Palace” theaters ever built in America. It was the crown jewel of the Chicago-based Balaban & Katz theater chain and is one of Chicago’s greatest movie theaters. The Uptown Theater cost $4 million in 1925 and was “Built For All Time . ”

As described in the Balaban & Katz Magazine from August 17, 1925, “By that they mean that rosy, romantic and beautiful plans of youth never come true. But here is the Uptown Theatre. It is beyond human dreams of loveliness, rising in mountainous splendor, achieving the overpowering sense of tremendous size and exquisite beauty – a thing that comes miraculously seldom.

“Entering it you pass into another world. The streets, the clangor of iron on cement, the harsh outlines of the steel thickets we call the city, all disappear. Your spirit rises and soars among the climbing pillars that ascend six stories to the dome ceiling of the colossal lobby. It becomes gay and light under the spell of the warm coloring that plays across heavily carved and ornamented wall as myriads of unseen lights steal out from mysterious hidden coves to illumine the interior with romantic sundown colors”.

“The Uptown Theatre is like a castle in Old Spain upon which countless artists and sculptors have lavished their talents. Behind the carved Travertine marble, the colossal pillars that gleam with bright shields and deep rich efflorescence, behind the velvet hangings and Spanish shawls, behind the magnificent mural paintings, the curving ceilings with their griffins, their heads of laughing kings, behind the charming little windows of Hispaniola that open on the great auditorium behind all that carries you into the spirit and mood of quaint, rich, grand Old Spain…” (Balaban & Katz Magazine, 8/17/25, page 1)

Located at 4816 N. Broadway, the Uptown was designed by the acclaimed theater architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp. At the time it opened, the grandiose tagline used to advertise the Uptown Theatre was “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City”. At 46,000 square foot, the Uptown is actually slightly larger than an acre! At the grand opening, the orchestra pit housed 60 musicians on an immense elevator platform, and the theatre was equipped with the most expensive Wurlitzer Grande theater organ built up to that time “with 10,000 pipes ranging in size from smokestack of an ocean-liner to a lead-pencil hidden behind the walls on either side of the proscenium arch.” (Balaban & Katz Magazine, 8/17/25, page 6)

In its first five years of operation, more than 20 million Chicagoans passed through its doors. The massive Uptown Theater had 4,381 seats and is said to be among the largest movie palaces ever built in the United States. Removable seating on the main level could enable people to stand at events, bringing the overall capacity to 5,800. It is larger than the seating capacity of most other large Chicago theaters including the Arie Crown Theater (4,250), the Auditorium Theater (3,901, originally 4,200), Chicago Theatre (3,600), the Oriental Theatre (2,253), the Cadillac Palace Theatre (2,344), and the Majestic/CIBC Theatre (1,800). The Congress Theatre, which is currently being restored, is projected to have a capacity of 3,500 for general admission shows and 2,600 for shows with seating.

“Jerry Mickelson of Jam Productions credits Chicago officials and longtime volunteers for the Uptown surviving decades of deferred maintenance and neglect through a succession of owners and receivership. Also, the City of Chicago invested in more than $1 million in court-ordered stabilization work and repairs, which removed and stored decorative terra cotta and replaced the system of pipes through which the rain and snowmelt from 12 roof surface drains. It was this system’s failure in the arctic winters of the early 1980s which caused water damage to some interior areas of ornate plaster ceilings and walls.” (Lynn Becker, ArchitectureChicagoPlus, 12/18/2011)

“We’ve come very far in the 50 years since the demolition of the Garrick Theater and Chicago Stock Exchange building when your common citizen may not have been involved in architectural preservation,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago. “But this is another example of a project that has so much good potential, in so many ways and something that could positively impact the entire Uptown Entertainment District.” (LaTrace, 8/22/17)

“If the Uptown really does wind up being reborn, it will mark a major change from 1961, which witnessed the destruction of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater, a masterpiece of the first Chicago School of Architecture, and its replacement by a parking garage. Along with the demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building in the early 1970s, that traumatic event helped lead to the creation of today’s strong preservation movement in Chicago and the Uptown’s bright new prospects .” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18)

Additional Reading
Uptown Theatre has already become a magnet for live music and buzz — just hear REO Speedwagon’s reaction, Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 12/6/18

City Commission approves $13 million in support for Uptown Theatre rehabilitation, Chicago Department of Planning and Development, 11/20/18

Uptown Theatre restoration working toward summer start date; the plan to reopen the neglected Chicago landmark has secured key city backing, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 11/13/18

Community Development Commission signs off on $75M Uptown Theatre restoration, Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, 11/13/18

Uptown Theatre’s $75 million restoration will begin next summer, Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 11/13/18

Uptown Theater Renovation Would Take 18 Months, Boost Capacity To 5,800, Check out photographer Eric Holubow’s photos from inside the palace. Block Club Chicago Staff, 11/14/18

Column: It’s great that the Uptown Theatre has a future. What kind of future will it be?, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/29/18

Uptown Theatre will be restored: $75 million plan unveiled for grand palace on North Side, Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 6/28/18

Uptown Theater will be restored to 1925 glamor with $75 million, Sara Freund, Curbed Chicago, 6/29/18

Chicago’s legendary Uptown Theatre to come back to life?, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/26/18 

On the 30th anniversary of its closing, Andy Pierce reminds us what’s so magical about the Uptown Theatre, Lynn Becker, Architecture Chicago Plus, 12/18/11

Hidden Movie Palaces, Geoffrey Baer Interview, Chicago Tonight WTTW Chicago, April 26, 2011 VIDEO

Uptown Theatre, Linda Winke, Chicago Architecture Foundation

A Palace of Enchantment, Balaban & Katz Magazine, August 17, 1925, Compassrose.org

A Second Act For The Uptown Theater?, Odette Yousef, WBEZ Chicago, September 19, 2014, RADIO

Inside the Uptown Theatre’s Unique features, Chicago Tribune, 8/7/15

Link to Save the Uptown Theatre Petition

Preservationists: The Uptown Theatre needs to become a priority, AJ LaTrace, Curbed Chicago, 8/22/17

It’s Time To Restore The Historic Uptown Theatre, Petition Urges, Stephen Gossett, Chicagoist, 7/7/17

Uptown: Portrait of a Palace (25 minute documentary, 2006)

Friends of the Uptown Theatre Website

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

57 − 48 =

Captcha verification failed!
CAPTCHA user score failed. Please contact us!