At Last! A $75M Renovation Planned for the Uptown Theatre

Chicago Tribune was the first to break what many Uptown residents have waited 35+ years for: Uptown Theatre will be restored – $75 million plan unveiled for grand palace on North Side.

First opening its doors August 18, 1925, the Jazz-era theatre was billed as “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.” And an acre, indeed — at 4,831 seats its rivals New York’s Radio City Music Hall in size.  With a five-story grand entrance and an eight-story facade, it is truly an enormous venue.  The theatre closed 37 years ago, in 1981 and has seen significant deterioration: with heat turned off, frozen pipes burst causing extensive damage to the interior. Deferred maintenance and vandalism has caused debilitation of the structure.

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Timeline:

  • 1925:  The theater opened with a staff of more than 130 people, including a full-time 34 piece orchestra, a nurse, firemen and others. Elaborate stage show productions would accompany each movie. For decades, films and stage shows entertained audiences at the Uptown Theatre.
  • 1920s-1960s: The theatre presented silent films and live vaudeville acts in the 1920s, then musicals and sound films in the 1930s. The TV show “Queen for a Day” was taped in front of a live audience in the theater in the 1950s-60s.
  • 1970s: The venue is revived as a major concert venue, hosting local and national acts, notably the Grateful Dead, Genesis, Electric Light Orchestra, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, Prince, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Frank Zappa and more.
  • 1981: The J. Geils Band was the last band to play at the theater.
  • 1986: The Uptown Theatre is added to the National Register of Historic Places
  • 1991: The threatre is designated a Chicago Landmark for its Spanish Revival style architecture.
  • 1996: The venue lands on the National Trust for Historic Preservation Endangered List (it also appeared twice on the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois’ “10 Most Endangered Places” list)
  • 1998: Friends of the Uptown, a non-profit organization not affiliated with the restoration, is formed by community volunteers, which support the restoration of the Uptown Theatre
  • 2008: JAM productions, who also own the Riveria one block away, purchase the Uptown Theatre through a judicial sale for $3.2 million. Renovation estimates are $70M.
  • 2011: After this election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel begins speaking of creating a music and entertainment district anchored by the Uptown, the Riviera Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom, and the Green Mill. His Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT), a nonprofit he founded to create​ public-private infrastructure projects for the city, made the Uptown one of its priority projects.
  • 2015: Crain’s report that a deal to make the theater a multipurpose entertainment complex was brokered by CIT but eventually fell apart.
  • Summer 2017: A petition circulated by Friends of Uptown garners over 6,000 in 6 weeks supporting the Uptown’s restoration
  • Early 2018: The CTA completes a $203 million renovation of the Wilson Red/Purple line station just south of the Uptown (the historic Gerber building, built in 1921, will become the future home of Chicago Market, a grocery co-op)
  • June 2018: Chicago Tribune reports that $75 million had been set aside, a combination of private and public funds, to restore the theater with hopes of reopening it within two years
  • 2019: The city will start a five-year project to rebuild the nearby Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr Red Line stations

 

Read more from Chicago Magazine, “Why the Uptown Theatre Restoration Is A Big Deal”, July 5, 2018

The costly overhaul of the long-shuttered Uptown Theatre is almost more akin to the major adaptive reuse efforts seen in downtown projects, representing one of the biggest public/private investments outside of the city’s center in recent years, and one that is likely to further catalyze the Uptown entertainment district and retail corridor.

The Uptown community has been pleading for action on the Uptown Theatre for a number of years now, but it seems that right pieces and players have only come together just recently, says Andy Pierce, a volunteer with the Friends of the Uptown Theatre group. A petition created by Pierce last summer garnered 6,000 signatures within six weeks. And despite previous grant deals and commitments to bring the Uptown back to life, Pierce believes that this latest effort is the real deal.

“We’ve never had the right team, momentum, and resources to make this happen, but now you have a combination of owner, developer, mayor, planning commissioner, and alderman working together to save the Uptown,” Pierce says. “This is a different level of commitment—we have construction industry professionals reaching out for blueprints and information, indicating a sign that something serious is happening.”

But like any other long-vacant giant being reimagined—think the Congress Theater in Logan Square, the Old Main Post Office in the West Loop Gate, and Cook County Hospital on the Near West Side—the Uptown Theatre cannot stand alone.