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:
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).
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.
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?