Uptown Theater

When the River Forest Women’s Club was rehabilitated as a residence a few years ago, it had at least half a million dollars of deferred maintenance, and the average house museum probably has a similar total – or more, in work that needs to be done. Usually, of course the projects would only cost a few thousand, but they were put off and put off again and then a decade or two later you have a six-figure problem.

As the building gets bigger and the timeframe of deferred maintenance gets longer, the problems multiply. So today our Master of Science in Historic Preservation students toured the Uptown Theater, the biggest and most stunning vaudeville show palace ever built. With over 4,300 seats, it is more than twice as big as the restored Rialto Square in Joliet, and almost a thousand seats more than the restored Chicago Theater downtown, both designed by Rapp and Rapp for Balaban and Katz, who decided to do the Uptown as their crowning glory. It was phenomenally overbuilt, with 17,000 lights, an acre of dome above the auditorium (clear view from every seat) and a seemingly endless array of decorative corridors dripping with pomp and circumstance. I kept seeing griffins in the iron balconies, crests and even the remnant curtains and then at the top of the house there were 34 more griffins, each 8 feet high ringing the dome.

But the Uptown has been sitting vacant since 1981, and for about a decade it was owned by some of the worst slumlords in the city. They let drain pipes freeze and water cascaded down the building, destroying intricate plasterwork. The water collected in the basement several feet deep. Even the massive rise of the terra cotta facade has had to be partly removed to address three decades of deferred maintenance. This building basically needs $50 million to become whole again.

The number exceeds the deferred maintenance needs of three dozen historic sites.

We toured the building at the invitation of Jerry Mickleson of Jam Productions and with the expert guidance of David Syfczak, who has cared for the theater for many years, and Jimmy Wiggins, a mechanical savant who thrilled us with his stories about the systems in the basement, including three original boilers, a beautiful and ancient air conditioning system. and a stunning hydraulic piston used to raise the 70,000 pound steel fire curtain. Jimmy has figured out how to restore that system, which will save about $2 million in the rehab. In fact, the restoration plan starts and ends with the premise that the building was planned and designed well, a refreshing approach. Indeed, it is amazing how much of it survived completely intact into the 1980s before the slumlords took over.

I last toured the Uptown about 15 or 20 years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised that the deterioration is not much worse than then. A million or two of emergency repairs have been done, sealing the leaks, fixing the drainage and turning on the ventilation. Mickleson, who has been the butt of some bad press on the project, is spending the six figures needed annually to arrest the deterioration and keep the building alive until it can be fully rehabilitated. Syfczak and Wiggins are doing a great job putting it back together – with full respect for the original genius of the place. Now if we only had that $50 million….

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2 Responses to “Uptown Theater”

  1. uttourism Says:

    No interior photos?

  2. designslinger Says:

    we walk past the uptown quite a bit, always admiring the old structure….$50 million!….hopefully the economy will change

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