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Dreaming of what once was: The struggle to restore Lawndale’s cultural monuments

by Robyn Murray
Feb 12, 2013

Robyn Murray/MEDILL

The historic Central Park Theater in North Lawndale is slowly being restored to its former glory. (Pictured: Fernando Gonzalez, construction manager at House of Hope/Charles Leeks, president of North Lawndale Cultural and Historical Society)

Dressed in a scruffy construction jacket and baseball cap, Fernando Gonzalez walks up a winding staircase that dips and creaks as it unfurls onto a black and white tile floor. “Sometimes I dream about the people who used to come here,” Gonzalez says with a faint smile. “I imagine them walking up these stairs."

Gonzalez is standing in the old Central Park Theater in North Lawndale.

Opened in 1917 as one of the nation’s first movie palaces by entertainment visionaries Balaban & Katz, the theater today is partly boarded up, its grandeur marred by ‘No Trespassing’ signs on its front windows.

The theater, adjacent to the House of Hope homeless shelter and directly opposite a liquor store with a flashing pink neon sign to attract regular visitors, hardly stands out on this dilapidated block of 3000 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Lawndale.

But inside, the old theater is in a slow process to bring it back from its decadently opulent heyday.

“Believe me, when I came here the first time,” Gonzalez says, shaking his head. “Oh, it was bad.”

Six feet of water stagnated on the floor of the theater’s balcony, having seeped in through a rotting roof as the building sat unused for decades. A swath of empty rows remains a visible scar – the work of opportunistic thieves who ripped out the metal seats, along with the theater’s last remaining original chandelier, sometime in the 1980s.

But beyond the wreckage of the balcony, where Gonzalez stands gazing out, is a sweeping ceiling decorated by intricate molding and plaster, painted in cheerful mustard yellow and framing a polished wooden stage.

This is Gonzalez’s handiwork.

Gonzalez works for Dr. Lincoln Scott, a pastor who owns the building and runs the shelter next door. Scott, 79, bought the Central Park Theater in 1971. He’s been chipping away at the massive project of restoring it since, but he stepped up the pace when he brought on Gonzalez to help him in 2010.

It’s been painstaking work, as Gonzales and his team of four men restored each section of plaster by hand. Scott said he’s spent over $1 million so far, gained through small donations from the community. It “took a person with a vision,” Scott said of the project’s scale. “You would have walked away from it if you’d seen it.”

But work on restoring the historic theater halted last summer, as Scott’s church ran out of money to continue.

Now, he’s looking for help – and ideas.

Jonathan Fine heads one organization coming up with some of those ideas.

“It’s a very difficult, very challenging, and oftentimes a very demoralizing process,” said Fine, president of Preserve Chicago, an organization dedicated to preserving Chicago’s multitude of historic buildings.

Fine included The Central Park Theater on his group’s annual list of most endangered historic buildings in Chicago last year, along with four other large movie theaters. Landmarks Illinois, a statewide preservation group, publishes a similar annual list that did not include the theater, but did include Hotel Guyon in West Garfield Park, which dates back to 1928 and was facing demolition court last year, and the Maywood Home for Soldiers’ Widows, which has been vacant since 2003.

The two lists are hardly exhaustive.

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, said, “There are warehouses, churches, schools that are sitting empty with no solution.”

Fine agreed.

“We as a community, we as a state have to come up with better ideas to preserving these buildings,” Fine added. “To watch them deteriorate and then thrown into a landfill – it shouldn’t happen in an enlightened society.”

Part of the problem, however, is that there are more dilapidated historic structures in the city than ideas for what to do with them.

Many of the most forlorn are large buildings in neighborhoods that have changed dramatically since they were developed. North Lawndale has evolved from one of the city’s most densely populated, with a bustling manufacturing industry, to one of the sparsest and poorest, with 28.9 percent unemployment. That makes it unlikely to support large entertainment complexes like the 1,780-seat Central Park Theater.

Buildings like that require significant investment to rehabilitate and innovative thinking to repurpose, said Scott Goldstein, principal at Teska Associates, an urban design firm based in Evanston.

It can be done, he said, but “it’s about thinking outside of the box.”

Goldstein pointed to the example of Garfield Park Conservatory. Located a few blocks from North Lawndale, the conservatory underwent a multimillion dollar revitalization in the 1990s. Private developers partnered with the city to transform the historic gardens into a destination that draws thousands of visitors each year from around the city.

Ideally, the project should appeal as a destination, Goldstein said, while supporting the needs of the neighborhood. Inevitably, he said, it takes more than good ideas.

“It takes money, it takes good relationships and it takes elected officials,” Goldstein said.

A spokesman for the city’s department of housing and economic development, Peter Strazzabosco, said the city is “well aware of the significance of the building,” and added the city is open to viable plans for redevelopment in any significant area. “The city would love to see someone come along with not only a plan but with the wherewithal to move it forward,” he said.

The Central Park Theater is included on the National Register of Historic Places, but is not an official city landmark. Strazzabosco said he could not comment specifically on a landmark designation before any building has gone through the application process.

But he noted the building is located in a tax increment financing district, which could open up options for public financing.

North Lawndale may lack private money, but community groups are willing to drum up support for buildings like the Central Park Theater.

Charles Leeks, a long-time resident of the area and president of the North Lawndale Cultural and Historical Society, has spent time documenting his neighborhood’s cultural monuments, as he refers to them, which include dozens of ornate synagogues – remnants of the area’s formerly vibrant Jewish community.

“When we lose them, it’s like a death in the family,” Leeks said, “and the community is a lesser place.”

Leeks said while many people in his community no longer remember the Central Park Theater, he does what he can to educate them and remind them of their neighborhood’s past.

“Wow. Right here in my own neighborhood?” chimed in Blanche Killingsworth, Leeks’ colleague and fellow long-time resident.

Killingsworth described the response she gets when she tells neighborhood kids about the old theater. “That’s where you went with your $1.25 allowance,” she said, adding the kids’ next question usually is, ‘Why can’t we get it back?’

To that, she replies with a “gentle truth,” she said, as the tries to explain the dearth of investment in her neighborhood.

“Would you rather destroy a dream and destroy a building at the same time?” she asked.
Back at the theater, Dr. Scott said he’s open to anyone who has ideas for ways to repurpose the building. He’d like to keep it for his church, he said, but he’d welcome any group “that’s going to inspire the community to do something, to activate them and motivate them,” he said.

Fernando Gonzalez locks up the building’s glass doors and glances toward the group of people gathered out front, crossing the street occasionally to head in to the liquor store.

With a sigh, he says he calls police at least twice a day to disperse loiterers, and he doubts the theater can attract visitors in its current state. People are scared; they don’t want to come here, he says. “Would you?”

Turning to the barren back row of torn-out seats, he smiles and says he’ll keep working on bringing the theater back to life. “I’ll be happy when I sit back there and see the first concert,” he says.

“I’ll be proud that day.”