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BORN AGAIN

A 30-year-old is resurrecting one of Chicago’s most endangered landmarks

By Anne Quito

This post has been updated.

After years in the dark, the New Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois, is close to reopening its doors. The architectural landmark, originally known as the Avalon Theater and designed in the Moorish Revival style by the prolific emigre John Eberson, has been a venue for performers like Duke Ellington, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Pearl Jam.

Charmaine Zoe / Creative Commons
Eric Allix Rogers / Creative Commons

The theater’s highly detailed, ornamental style was the prevalent mode of design in American movie houses or “atmospheric theaters” during the 1920s. As explained in the building’s landmark document, “the concept of the movie palace, and particularly its interior, was transformed to create an environment of fantastic illusion for its patrons.”

Over the years, the theater has gone through several reincarnations.

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The lobby ceiling is referred to as the ”largest flying carpet in the world”

Opened in the summer of 1927, at the height of public interest movie-going, the ornate, 2,250-seat theater, on Chicago’s South Side, closed in the mid 1970s and was briefly resurrected as a church. It was converted back to a performing arts venue in 1987, but declined along with the rest of the surrounding neighborhood. It went into foreclosure in 2011.

These images by photographer Matt Lambros show the theater‘s well-preserved interior during its shutdown.

Used with permission, © Matthew Lambros
Ceiling detail
Used with permission, © Matthew Lambros
Ticket booth
Used with permission, © Matthew Lambros
Used with permission, © Matthew Lambros
Used with permission, © Matthew Lambros

Photographer Eric Holubow, who published a book on abandoned spaces, provide sweeping panoramas of the main theater, still majestic despite patches of paint peeling from the cobalt ceiling.

Used with permission, © Eric Holubow
Used with permission, © Eric Holubow
Used with permission, © Eric Holubow
Used with permission, © Eric Holubow

In 2011, Landmarks Illinois listed the New Regal among the 10 most endangered historic buildings in the state, noting the extensive damage to the exterior façade and raising the threat of interior damage due to lack of maintenance or even scavengers. The report issued the call for revitalization:

There is a small window of opportunity to prevent this theater from that fate and becoming a ‘white elephant’ that would be economically difficult to salvage. A capable new owner is needed immediately.

The building seems to have found its savior: A young businessman named Jerald “J” Gary, who bought the property last year for $100,000. ”I grew up eight blocks away from the theatre, so when my mother told me that it was on sale, I said, ‘I absolutely have to do my due diligence on this and see if I could get involved,” Gary explained in an October interview with the local ABC station.

At 30, Gary is president and chief investment officer of a real estate investment firm that owns several properties in the area. He moonlights as a drummer in local bands like Super Doppler Wars. Gary aspires to restore the theater’s original architectural details and bring back its old grandeur, a project that he estimates will cost around $5 million.

“I saw first-hand how the community suffered from the negative economic impact that occurred when the theater shuttered its doors,” he said. “My hope is that by bringing back this landmark, Chicago’s South Side can once again become a destination for performing arts, which will spur investment and recovery in the community.”

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Gary recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the last phase of the project.

Correction (April 7): Landmarks Illinois, the non-profit historic preservation advocacy group listed the New Regal in their top 10 list, not the Chicago landmarks commission as the article originally stated.