Monday, February 23, 2015

Ford Oriental Theatre Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Ford Oriental Theatre Building (1926) Rapp & Rapp, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

It was once known as the Randolph Street Rialto, four city blocks of hip, happening entertainment. Thousands of lightbulbs and miles of neon outlined a long row businesses which included restaurants, clubs, hotels and seven gigantic theater marquees, cloaking teeming nighttime crowds in a blaze of light. The opulent 3,200-seat Oriental Theatre, the largest on the block, survived through those good times, and some bad ones.

  [Ford Oriental Theatre Building, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Two decades before the Oriental opened its doors on May 8, 1926 the site had been the scene of a horrific fire. The Iroquois Theater opened in November, 1903 and 5 weeks later was closed down after a fire ripped through the interior auditorium and left over 600 men, women and children dead in its wake. The death toll was larger than the official final estimate of 250-300 lives lost in the aftermath of the city's huge conflagration of 1871. There were approximately 2000 people attending a holiday matinee on December 30th when a fire broke out backstage, and swept across the auditorium causing panic and mayhem. Soon after the fire, the Colonial Theater rose-up out of the ashes.

  [Ford Oriental Theater Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1922 the local Masonic order decided to leave their 32-year-old, Burnham & Root designed Masonic Temple Building at State and Randolph Street, and were on the hunt for a new location. They found one a half-a-block to the west on Randolph where the Colonial Theater stood. After a series of lease agreements with various land trusts that owned adjoining property, the Masons hired architects C.W. and George L. Rapp to design their new home. The building would not only provide lodge space for the fraternal order with a 1,500 seat, vaulted-ceiling meeting room on the top floor, but would also include commercial office space for rent, plus enough room for a large theater. The decorative elements would be inspired by the architecture of the East, which was a popular theme for many Masonic buildings in the 1920s, stylistically spanning an area that extended from the Middle East, to India, to southern China. The elaborately embellished and colorful ground-floor restaurant was dubbed "The Signapore," and the theater, Balaban & Katz's "Oriental."

  [Ford Oriental Theatre Building, Randolph Street, Chicago/Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In early spring 1932, the Chicago Tribune announced that the offices of the Chicago Realty Board would be moving into 32 W. Randolph Street and taking over the 20th floor dining room and 19th floor offices, along with a name change - the dusky brown tower would now be known as the Chicago Realty Board Building. Over the next 40 years the lights along this stretch of Randolph Street grew dimmer and dimmer. By 1980 the teeming crowds of the Rialto's heyday of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s had been replaced by a more unsavory group of Chicagoans - gang members. On December 8, 1980 a group of undercover police officers arrested 75 rival gang members who had gathered at the Oriental to work out their south side vs. west side differences. Violence had escalated in the weeks before, when a gang member was shot by a an opposing affiliated member on the sidewalk in front of the theater. Then on December 10th, the building's owner said that the theater would closing. The grand two-story lobby was converted into an electronics store, a dropped acoustical tile ceiling was added, while the auditorium sat vacant and shuttered for the next 16 years.
In 1996, investors purchased and renovated the theater portion of the building with the financial assistance of the City of Chicago, and architects at Daniel P. Coffey and Associates, along with the craftspeople at Conrad Schmitt Studios, oversaw a restoration returned the neglected space back to all of its stunningly magnificent, oriental glory. The nearly fully leased office section went up for sale in 2011 by the family who had owned the property since the 1970s, with a potential apartment conversion down the line.

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