Riviera Theatre, Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Riviera Theatre (1918) C. W. & George L. Rapp, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
After doing research on an almost daily basis for the past four years, you come to expect that certain pieces of information about a particular building will to be easy to find and verify. Especially when you're researching a building that is fairly well known and listed in a number of guide books and architectural surveys. The Riviera Theatre, and its attribution to brothers and architects C.W. and George L. Rapp, is a case in point. The theater, once operated by Chicago's famous Balaban & Katz movie exhibition chain, has been credited to the Rapp brothers, who with Balaban & Katz's money, created some of the most phantasmagorical motion picture palaces the world has ever seen. And although it is well documented that Balaban & Katz didn't build the Riviera, no contemporary accounts of the time mention the Rapps as the designers of the theater even though they, and the theater, received lots of attention.
[Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The association between the architects and brothers Barney and A.J. Balaban and Sam Katz began when the exhibitors called on the Rapps to design a movie theater on Chicago's west side called the Central Park - Chicago's first motion picture palace. On March 11, 1917, the year that the Central Park opened to much fanfare, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mr. Tom Chamales had received a $50,000 loan from Chicago Title & trust Co. on a piece of property located at the southwest corner of Lawrence and Broadway. He returned to the financial institution the following month for another $65,000 for a term of three years at 6% interest for the same 150' x 150' corner lot. Chamales was already carrying an incumbrance of $275,000 on a plot of land for the construction of a hotel, ground floor stores, and a theater building. With construction underway, in September of that year, Chamales signed a lease with Chicago film exhibition chain Jones, Linick & Schaefer for a term of 10 years at $25-grand per annum. But Jones, Linick & Schaefer didn't make it to opening night because as the building complex was nearing completion, Chamales - who also owned the Green Mill Gardens directly across the street on the northwest corner of Lawrence and Broadway - drew up a new lease for the theater space in July, 1918 with one Mr. Lawrence A. Smith. But this time around the agreement ran for a term of 15 years at $25,000/year, with an option for two extensions of five years each at the same rental. So although Jones, Linick & Schaefer were now out of the deal, the Smith lease which was to begin on August 1, 1918, extended Chamales' potential cash flow for a comfortable income producing 25 years. But still no mention of the Rapps.
[Riviera Theatre, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
With the Central Park under their belts, Balaban & Katz made another big splash when, in November 1917 - just two months after the Jones, Linick & Schaefer deal had been signed with Chamales - Barney & A.J. Balaban announced that C.W. and George L. Rapp would be designing another B&K theater, only this time on the north side of the city in Uptown. B&K wanted to establish a presence in a market dominated by two chains: Jones, Linick & Schaefer and the Ascher Brothers. To let the competition know they were serious about their move into new territory, they were even going to one-up themselves and outbuild the Central Park by constructing the largest theater in Chicago, and enter the north side market with a bang. Based on the Rapp's design of the Central Park, the new $750,000 building - located on a 150' x 150' lot at the corner of Lawrence and Sheridan Road just a few blocks east of the Chamales project - would have a 5-story high theater seating 3,500 people, ground floor retail space for 10 stores, and a 100-room hotel. Balaban & Katz's proposed project was identical to Chamales' multi-purpose project - only much bigger.
[Riviera Theatre, Uptown Square National Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
But B&K never built on the corner of Lawrence and Sheridan, while down the street, on August 3, 1918, two days after the Chamales/Smith lease was to take effect, Balaban & Katz's Central Park Theatre advertisement for the screening times of Pauline Frederick in "Her Final Reckoning" contained a small notice at the bottom that read, "Will Open Soon - Our New Riviera Theatre - Broadway & Lawrence." So in the end the 1,900-seat Riviera became the first north side location of the B&K chain, the design of which would be attributed to C. W. & George L. Rapp. Yet, with all the publicity and notice surrounding the construction and debut of the Riviera, and the publication of other work done by the Rapps at the time, there is no mention of the brothers in relation to the Riviera. Not in the Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, the Architectural Record, Inland Architect, the Economist, Building & Construction, or The American Contractor. Between March 1917 and September 1918, a number of Rapp projects receive attention, including a $200,000 theater project they were working on at 4717 S. Ashland Avenue, around the same time of the Riviera's construction. So why no mention of the Rapps and the Riviera in major publications of the time? Just one of those interesting discoveries you find, or don't find.