Saturday, December 13, 2008

Harper Theater: Historically Significant?

posted by Elizabeth Fama

In the last few days, HPP reader "BWChicago" brought up the issue of the historic significance of the Hyde Park Movie Theater (see the comments on Chicago Pop's previous post). He mentioned that the Joffrey Ballet and Second City played there when it was called Harper Theater. He was the first person I've heard articulate reasons he thought the building had some historic merit, and it raised the level of the discussion in the comment section about demolition versus restoration.

San Nicola in Carcere, Rome

I really admire old objects and art, but I'm not a zealous preservationist yet. For instance, one of my favorite buildings in Rome is San Nicola in Carcere, which was built in the 6th Century on the ruins of three ancient temples, using the columns of the temples for one of its walls. It also has a jutting medieval prison tower (back from its days as a jail), and a 19th Century facade stuck on the front. Until the recent tourism era, Italians thought nothing of tearing down and rebuilding to suit current tastes and egos, or heck, just building sopra (on top of). I'm not sure that's such a bad model.

For an average person like me, then, a building in Hyde Park can have historic significance because (a) experts agree it's important architecturally, or (b) something important happened there, or (c) both. With regard to (a) BWChicago argued that the theater is probably nicer than any new structure that will be built there, which time will tell. With regard to (b), there was that Joffrey Ballet and Second City information he provided.

I did some cyber research on Harper Theater, and this is what I could find about its significance:

1) It was built as a vaudeville theater in 1913. (Vaudeville is cool.)

2) In 1995 the City of Chicago finished a 12-year inventory of all structures built before 1940 (the Chicago Historic Resources Survey). Even my house was evaluated (it's "too altered for architectural or historical significance," humph). Harper Theater is one of 9,600 properties listed as "orange" in their ranking system, meaning "possesses potentially significant architectural or historical features."

3) Landmarks Illinois -- which is a private (not state-run) preservation organization -- listed the theater on its 2008-2009 watch-list of endangered properties, after the University's deal with a developer fell through.

4) Bruce Sagan (publisher of the Hyde Park Herald) and his wife, Judith, bought the theater in 1964 to host the annual "Harper Theater Dance Festival." In November of 1965, the Joffrey Ballet -- which a year before had been forced to disband (for contractual reasons) -- staged a one-week comeback at Harper Theater with new dancers and new choreography, putting the corps back on the national radar. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also participated in the Festival at some point.

From the Newberry Library's Inventory of Judith and Bruce Sagan Papers, 1965-1986:

Founders of the Harper Theater Dance Festival, Bruce and Judith Sagan met while students at the University of Chicago. Bruce Sagan, a publisher of local newspapers, bought the Harper Theater business block in Hyde Park and in 1964 he and Judith renovated the theater in order to present a cross-section of top dance companies, some of them new to Chicago audiences. The festivals provided a full week of performance opportunities at a time when most touring companies were subjected to one-and two-night stands while on the road. Although including both ethnic and classic dance at the beginning, the festivals soon specialized as a showcase for the best contemporary and experimental dance companies in the country, such as Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais and Paul Taylor.

By the third season, Bruce Sagan gave up his active involvement in the dance festivals and Judith Sagan became sole producer. In 1971 the festival, now the Harper Dance Foundation, moved to downtown Chicago to the Civic Theater and then to the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall between 1971 and 1975. After 1975, the foundation became dormant, but was reactivated in 1979 to bring the Paul Taylor Dancers back to the Civic Theater.

5) BWChicago also stresses the fact that Second City played at Harper Theater, but the only reference I could find was relatively insignificant, in an obituary about Byrne Pivens:

Married in 1954, the Pivens left Chicago in 1955 to work and study in New York, but they returned here in 1967 to appear in the short-lived Second City Repertory Company at the old Harper Theater in Hyde Park.

In fact, the two true ancestor groups of Second City -- Playwrights Theater Club and subsequently The Compass Players -- played in bars on 55th Street (University Tap and Compass Tavern) that both fell to urban renewal. The Bee Hive, a highly influential jazz club, was also razed (among other music venues).

So while we debate the significance of Hyde Park Movie Theater, I say that we also dig up the foundations of those bars and clubs on 55th, and -- like Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome -- we build new taverns and a nightlife right on top of them. What better way to honor the past?

11 comments:

BWChicago said...

I'm really glad I inspired you to investigate more. Here's a little more to fill in the gaps.

In the late 60s, the Harper hosted yearly dance festivals; the Joffrey, then in its early years was among a few troupes that performed in these festivals. Fairly brief, but I would consider this sort of activity pretty significant in defining Hyde Park's late 60s metropolitan culture.

The Second City involvement was in their legitimate stage division, which was there at the tail end of the 60s.

I don't have a lot of time right now to delve further into research, but I did research the Harper a while back for [url=http://cinematreasures.org/theater/958/]Cinema Treasures[/url] - you can read my summary in the comments there. The majority of the research I do is using the Chicago Tribune Historical Archives, which you can get to through the Chicago Public Library site. I hadn't come across that information on the Sagans, myself- that's interesting. From my understanding, there was also a coffeehouse running out of the lobby at the time - very 'bohemian'!

Also, while I'm at it, I'd like to clarify - if something on the order of quality of Solstice on the Park were proposed for the Doctors Hospital site, I would support that in a heartbeat - even ignoring the environmental impact of demolition (takes a lot of energy to run those bulldozers, haul that rubble, throw it in the landfill). But failing that, I think a project with a preservation component would be better than a cheap design. There's more flexibility in a more residential zone like that, and while it's quality architecture, it isn't a terribly distinctive building.

The Harper, on the other hand, relates to the scale of the street really well and anchors the corner very nicely. As for its reuse potential, I think the fact that it survived to 2002 with really poor management for many years speaks to the presence of an audience, and the fact that Classic and the Music Box showed interest demonstrates that those in the business believe it could work. I think the real reason is that the University just didn't want it there. Programmed correctly - and that's a big if - it could act as a good draw into the neighborhood for people to stimulate other businesses.

Anyway, I really appreciate the ability to hold a respectful, civilized discussion on the merits of these projects, and I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to do so.

edj said...

Those are great points, but I think that the fact that the Music Box and others showed interest,but never pulled the trigger is very telling. The market for that type of theater is limited and , I think, already being fulfilled with the Music Box and a couple of other theaters on the North Side (whose names escape me at the moment).

Doctors Hospital is a fantastic location for a hotel. IT is in the right spot for the university to hold conferences and for families who have ved ones in the hospital (a really big reason for building a hotel - a lot o families have to go all the wy to hotels at Midway Airport to find a decent place to stay). It is near the museum, and at the junction of lots of bus lines from the airport as well as a short commute or conventioneers attending McCormick Place events.

I disagree with the argument about scale. In this city, we are always building taller buildings. I think that there could have been a nice way to balance location of the tower that would have led to a new sense of scale. I think that that argument is about as valid as the nes that Fred Robie's neighbors made when they said the prairies style design didn't it in with the Victorian sense of the street.

The bottm line for me is that we need to build a neighborhood for the needs of us who live here now, not for what was done or needed when I was a wee baby. It's nce, but I don't want to serve other people's memories. I want to build my and my families memories.

Richard Gill said...

EDJ, there you go again, talking sense. Don't you know that the most wild-eyed preservationists just want to save old stuff, even if it means the stuff can't be used for anything any people (except the preservationists) want?

There are two preservationist agendas at work here. One is a campaign to save almost every old structure, perhaps out of sentiment, detachment from economic reality, that sort of thing.

Far more dangerous is the power agenda. In the event that buildings such as the Harper Theater are granted some sort of landmark status, there are preservationists that will assume they "own" the buildings. Having "saved" the structures, they will demand the right to dictate future use. Everyone needs to watch out for this. In case nobody noticed, I am suspicious.

Greg said...

I thought the Music Box actually did try to pull the trigger, but their proposal came too late (after the University's deadline)? That's what I remember reading anyway. And I do remembering being kind of annoyed that the U didn't let them try anyway. Music Box Hyde Park would be sweet. I think it could even be profitable, at least once Harper Court is redeveloped.

edj said...

I was thinking about the issue related to the Joffrey dancing at the theater beore I was born and then remembered that they have a nice new building downtown at Dearborn and Randolph. I even noticed the modern sign sticking out from the building. They seem to have moved on from 1965. It's time we do as well and build a metropolitan culture for the 2010s.

Peter Rossi said...

make no little plans has been translated in Hyde Park NIMBY-speak to

make no plans

WoodLawn Jack said...

I know y'all be surprised that I'm on the "tear it down" side of things. I agree with edj--build for the current residents. Unless there were lions eating christians it isn't really that old or that historical.

To quote Eddie Izzard . . .
"Yes, and I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from. Oh, yeah. You tear your history down, man! "30 years old, let's smash it to the floor and put a car park here!" I have seen it in stories. I saw something in a program on something in Miami, and they were saying, "We've redecorated this building to how it looked over 50 years ago!" And people were going, "No, surely not, no. No one was alive then!" . . .

. . . "Well, we got tons of history lying about the place, big old castles, and they just get in the way. We're driving-- "Oh, a fucking castle! Have to drive around it...""

I (back to me, not eddie) think there are too many people who think any new development is going to look like the cookie cutter suburban malls or the same old quickie 3 flat condos that go up on the Northside. But for the most part more recent "large" buildings seem to blend in a lot better than most of the crap built in the 60s and 70s. May be sacrilege but I think IM Pei's building on 55th is awful.

Lilithcat said...

"The market for that type of theater is limited and , I think, already being fulfilled with the Music Box and a couple of other theaters on the North Side"

Why should I have to traipse up to the North Side? The fact is, it's a huge hassle and, as a result, I don't.

And, while I don't have a particular jones for the Harper Theater, the argument that "well, they tore down the 55th Street bars" doesn't hold water. If we assume, arguendo, that the Theater's connection with Second City makes it worth saving, the fact that other places with a similar connection weren't saved strengthens, rather than weakens, the argument in favor of the Harper Theater.

Richard Gill said...

Hey, folks, let's reel it in for a moment. If any of this development is going to work, it's going to have to focus on what's missing from the neighborhood. And cultural opportunities and interesting buildings are not what is missing. What's missing, and what most people seem to want, is a vibrant commercial street environment...a variety of shops (basic needs and specialties), restaurants, bars. Movie houses and theaters, while nice adjuncts, are not going to drive commercial redevelopment. And it doesn't take historical or significant architecture to make commercial viability happen. It takes good businesses that sell stuff people will buy.

I know it's heretical to look admiringly at anything on the evil North Side, but have you been to the Lakeview neighborhood lately and taken a look at Broadway, between Diversey and Addison? The street is chock full of restaurants, shops, bars, pharmacies, you name it. Most are independently owned. Treasure Island's headquarters store is even there. Like Hyde Park, Lakeview is a diverse community that has money to spend. Broadway has what Hyde Park longs for. Is it any wonder the U of C sponsors a bus route to Lakeview?

Is the architecture on Broadway a contributing factor to the street's success? I doubt it, unless total blah is a positive attribute. Architecturally, Broadway is a step below nondescript; it looks downright scruffy. But that doesn't seem to be hurting business or the community. And contrary to popular belief, Broadway is not chronically choked with traffic.

I'm not against viable preservation and architectural thematics, but they are not what are most important. The cultural uniqueness of Hyde Park won't be weakened or threatened by architecture, nor will it be strengthened by architecture. The so-called preservations who want to save the Harper Theater building because of its "uniqueness" or whatever may give lip service to commercial development, but they are merely creating a diversion in an attempt to mold the neighborhood to their particular fantasies. They have thrown "preservation wrenches" into the Point, a new hotel, St. Stephens, and now they want to do it to 53rd Street. Stay focused on what's important. Don't let them take your eye off the ball.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I see from Lilithcat's comment that I was too subtle in my post. I tried to present facts (the few I could find) about the history of the place so that a discussion could begin about the theater's historic significance, without pushing my opinion.

To me the historic significance of the theater is (so far, from what I dredged up) thin. A five-year stint as the home of a six-week annual dance festival, and the home of a failed Second City repertory company aren't impressive credentials. I'm actually more interested in what sort of vaudeville might have taken place there, but perhaps that information is lost. And in any case, something written (a book, a lost interview with a vaudevillian) would satisfy me there.

As for the bars on 55th, I was just implying that what happened in those smoky, sometimes seedy places seemed more historically significant. But rather than lament the loss of the physical bars (which may or may not have survived all these years), I lament that Hyde Park is no longer a jazz mecca. We could be taking steps to make it inviting to musicians with "new" buildings, I'm sure.

Saving the theater building is fine, if a reasonable developer thinks he can work with it. But there's something to be said for the Italian model -- tear it down, build what you want, for the people who live here now. We'll all be dust in the cosmos in the long run anyway.

chicago pop said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with Elizabeth here that the creds for "historical significance" as they have been presented thus far are not that impressive. The whole approach to making this kind of appraisal strikes me as rather arbitrary. If someone is into theater and really likes theater history, I can see why they might be jazzed about old theaters, or something similar with old hotels, trains, factories, or whatnot, but at the end of the day it seems that there needs to be a much clearer set of criteria to guide preservationist action -- at least if the goal is to convince skeptics who arent' particularly theater buffs.

It would seem that, in the case of Harper Theater, possible preservation should be one desirable goal, but not a deal-braker -- it would all depend on the circumstances, like what turns up at next-door Harper Court, what kind of retail mix falls into place in the Herald Building, etc.