Landmark Century Centre Cinema - Diversey Theater


[Landmark Century Centre Cinema - Diversey Theater (1925) Levy & Klein, architects /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Ninety-years ago theater owners offering what was then considered less high-brow entertainment like vaudeville and moving pictures, pulled-out all the stops when it came to building their theaters. What came to be described as palaces for the masses, they were certainly the closest most of the country's working class inhabitants would ever get to a palatial experience. Chicago was home to a handful of exhibitors who built some of the largest, most spectacular, over-the-top entertainment venues in the country, and the Diversey Theater on Clark Street just north of Diversey came trimmed with a visual overload of terra-cotta curly cues, and an elaborately decorated interior with an auditorium that could seat over 3,000 people.


[Landmark Century Centre Cinema - Diversey Theater, 2828 N. Clark Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Real estate investor Fred Becklenberg got the ball rolling when he purchased a piece of property on the northwest corner of Clark and Diversey, where it meets-up with the triangular, traffic challenging intersection at Broadway. His plan was to build a hotel on the corner and he expanded his investment by acquiring the property to the north, where he would construct a theater. Becklenberg didn't know a thing about the entertainment business so he signed a lease with the Chicago-based vaudeville booking agency Jones, Linick & Schaefer, who operated the McVickers Theater in downtown Chicago. Architects Alexander Levy and William Klein were given a budget of $1,500,000 to design an eye-catching vaudeville house, with motion picture photo plays running in between the live acts. When the theater opened for business in the summer of 1925 matinees cost 25 cents and evening performances would set you back half-a-dollar.


[Landmark Century Centre Cinema - Diversey Theater, Clark Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Jones, Linick & Schaefer hosted acts on the Orpheum circuit but pulled-out of the
Diversey when the building was leased to Marks Brothers, a local motion picture distributorship. By the early 1930s Marks Brothers tenure gave way to movie exhibitors Balaban & Katz, who owned and ran some of the most prominent picture palaces in the city. At the time Chicago was getting ready to host the Art Deco spectacular that went by the name of the Century of Progress World's Fair. Taking a cue from the Fair's title, B&K changed the name of the Diversey to The Century and updated the interior with an Art Deco flair. Unfortunately, even by the time that B&K took over the Diversey the handwriting was on the wall for these peoples palaces, the Great Depression and the advent of radio were beginning to take a toll on movie admissions. Then came the post-war suburban housing boom, a television in every living room, and by the 1970s, running an old, and now rundown movie house with 3,000 seats was economically challenging even under the best of circumstances.


[Landmark Century Centre Cinema - Diversey Theater, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1973 two brothers involved the real estate market in the area purchased The Century for $350,000 and came-up with a plan. It was a radical idea, gutting the interior and building a mulit-level retail mall into the empty cavity of the building. The massive, mainly horizontal, indoor retail experiment called Woodfield Mall had opened in the Chicago suburbs in 1971. And plans for a vertical indoor mall on Michigan Avenue had been in the works since the late 1960s. But the Malisoff brothers beat the developers of Water Tower Place to the punch and opened their indoor, urban-stacked shopping experience one year before the gleaming, marble lined, waterfall enhanced Michigan Avenue retail mart opened its doors. Century Mall did okay but never quite lived up to its expectations. In 2000 the former Diversey Theater returned to its roots - sort of. Landmark Theatres took over a big chunk of the former mall space, constructed a multi-plex inside, and cleaned and restored the exterior. Then in 2011 an Israeli-based developer purchased the building, and in May 2013 word on the street was that the new owners intended to remove the elaborate terra-cotta facade in order to add more window space which they believed would make the building more marketable to retail or medical office tenants. Back in 1973 when Sonny and Earl Malisoff converted The Century from movie theater to shopping mall, the brothers told the Chicago Tribune that they could have torn down the building and built a brand new structure for the same $10 million they were spending on the adaptive reuse. But as Sonny stated, "We felt that salvaging (the facade) would make it a more interesting concept than building a stark modern building." Plus, he added, "you could never duplicate the terra-cotta facade and basic esthetics of the building."

See a B&K purpose built movie palace extravaganza at: Oriental Theatre, Chicago.


 
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