Tuesday, February 2, 2010


 The Esquire Theatre, located about a mile north of the Loop in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, in the Near North Side Community Area, opened in 1938. Of the Art Moderne style, it featured a massive southern exterior wall faced in Rainbow granite and smooth tan brick. A massive neon marquee spelling the theatre's name denoted the entrance. When it opened, it was under the purview of H&E Theaters, Harry and Elmer being the youngest brothers of the Balaban family, of Balaban & Katz , the theatre company who had erected the Chicago, Uptown, and other theatres before 1920 and began the golden era of Chicago theatre architecture.  While its Art Moderne architecture stood in stark contrast to the ornamented palace interiors of the theaters that had come before it, the interior held a streamlined and colorful elegance of a kind the city had never seen before. The Gold Coast was a wealthy place in the late 1930s just as it is today, and the design was intended to appeal to the highest sensibilities of its day. This high-style design seems to have received notice, as the Esquire was selected as the 1938 Building of the Year by Architectural Forum magazine.

To see a show at the Esquire, a patron would enter through a vestibule meant to keep the climate of the fully air-conditioned theater (a fairly new invention at the time, though Balaban & Katz had air conditioned their theatres as early as 1917) intact, and then into a sweeping lobby that curved around the wall of the single, main auditorium, which was faced in mahogany wainscoting with copper-colored plaster above. At the rear of the lobby rose a grand staircase, carpeted and edged by curving steel railings, leading to a circular overlook above the lobby. Recessed lighting was used throughout, often a blue tint, and highlighted by walls, ceilings, and carpets of salmon, peach, slate, smoke blue, and “cedar” brown. With no windows, it was a closed and fantastic interior wonderland. Curved walls led to unexpected nooks, galleries, and lounges, and circular porthole windows allowed unexpected views.

In its earliest days, the Esquire was considered the city's poshest movie house. Unlike other theaters in the city, it had been built well after motion pictures had entered the mainstream, and so the seating and amenities reflected this, with good sight lines. Its earliest operators played into its prestige by not offering popcorn for sale. Around 1970, it was taken over by Plitt Theaters, and it became a more typical modern movie house, with popcorn and drinks available to a more modest-income crowd, but it still had only one screen. Even given the massive number of seats that had to be sold for one show, it was still successful throughout the 1980s. The theater could have kept being successful for many more years, also, but the owner at the time, M&R Theaters, had other ideas.

In 1986, plans began to circulate that the multiplexing movement that had begun sweeping the metropolitan area was to hit the Esquire.  At first, it was to be split into twin screens of 700 seats each, though that number later increased to six much smaller screens. The problem, though, was that M&R wanted to include retail space in the complex, to cash in on the increasingly soaring rents available on Oak Street, onto which the theater faced. Creating retail space would involve a massive reconfiguration of the floor plates and the landlord wanted to alter the facade to allow entrances and display windows for the new retail spaces.

However, in 1983, the city of Chicago had begun the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, which was intended to be a comprehensive list of buildings in the city that had historical or architectural merit and were worthy of preservation. Among the first batch to be surveyed was the Esquire Theatre, and it was rated “Red.” This was the highest possible rating in the survey, held by only 300 buildings in the whole city. As such, the Chicago Commission on Architectural and Historic Landmarks immediately tried to landmark the theater. However, the process was not complete by the time the changes were proposed and M&R Theaters was strongly against the designation. They obtained a demolition permit that they assumed could be used as leverage in a legal suit if the Landmarks Commission forced landmarking over their objection. Partially because of this threat and partially because only one member of the board of the Landmarks Commission was an architect who was willing to stand up for the issues at stake, the Landmarks Commission was willing to work with the developer under the pretense that the building permit would be held up indefinitely if they didn't cooperate. Thus, a compromise was reached. Essentially, the building would be rebuilt, including a replacement of the structure with concrete from the original steel, in return for the facade being retained and the lobby being kept 90% intact. However, the changes necessary on the facade for the addition of retail to the building were allowed.

The architect for the four million dollar renovation was Gelick Foran Associates. Hardly an experienced theater architect, their only other major theater project was the design of the Piper's Alley Cinema. The lack of respect the architect had for history is obvious on the facade of that building, as shown by a large portion of reused fabric from the demolished Louis Sullivan-designed Schiller Theater juxtaposed with the faces of The Second City cast immortalized in the facade of the theater, a parody of the Schiller since that facade included faces of famous Germans. The changes to the Esquire, similarly, show little respect for the grandeur and fabric of the original theater. Aside from the lobby, everything was gutted. In its place, behind the walls of the main auditorium, are two floors of modern retail, with modern storefronts punched through the staid 1930s monolithic brick facade. Some of the original ground floor doors leading to the main auditorium were repurposed as elevator doors. The new theaters, six screens with auditoriums of about 200 seats each, compared to the original 1,200 seats, are on the third and fourth floors. Simple boxes of drywall, they are small, steep, and narrow even by modern theater standards.

On Feb. 4, 1990, the new Esquire Theater reopened, 52 minutes late because the developer had not gotten the fire alarm system correctly certified with the city.  Perhaps this should have been an omen of things to come. Through the 1990s, the theater showed art house films, and was fairly successful, though the loss of character in its new auditoriums, in contrast to the lobby that mostly still remained, was well documented in the press. By the early 2000s, the current operator, AMC Loews, was far less careful about which films were picked to be shown there, and the theater was falling into disrepair. This foreshadowed the plans to close the theater in 2006. The retail space remained rented until January 2009, but now lays fallow. In 2008, plans began to circulate that the theater would be demolished for good, and a new retail development would take its place.  If it weren't for the severe economic recession that hit in late 2008, the Esquire would be demolished. As of now, it still stands, though sad and forlorn.

The text above is from a paper I wrote on the Esquire recently. You might be interested in a couple of articles I used in my research, which I have uploaded here. One is the article from Architectural Forum in 1938 in which they designate it as their Building of the Year. The other is a scathing review in Inland Architect, from 1991, of the renovation. Most of the rest of the research came from the Chicago Tribune archives.

Posted by Posted by The Loosh at 7:22 AM