The Esquire Theater, located at 58 East Oak Street, should have been put out of its misery. Instead of fading into history in dignified fashion it lives on as a Frankenstein’s monster.
Once upon a time this was one of Chicago’s grand movie theaters. It opened in 1938 and boasted sleek art deco design details. Renovations in 1988 left it with a less than stunning interior. But it was still a destination movie spot. AMC Theaters finally ended its run in 2006.
In 2011 it was gutted and converted to retail use. This was not a bad thing. Despite a storied history it is not likely that it would have ever served as a cinema again. That business has changed immensely since 1988. Building a money-making movie theater today on a constrained city lot would be difficult.
But grafting a modern retail complex onto the Esquire’s art deco remains created a horrible building. It is a sort of Windows 8 architectural statement in which one element has been pasted into an environment where it does not belong. The biggest absurdity is that they retained the lighted cinema sign. It comes off as a ham-fisted attempt at architectural preservation. Few on Oak Street probably care about the building’s history at this point.
Even the sincerity of that effort seems questionable. The Esquire sign may be for sale. Urban Remains, a local salvage firm specializing in architectural artifacts, has it listed on their web site. A note from 2011 indicates the sign is to remain in place. But why is the listing still there? If someone comes across with a good bid will the sign will be taken down?
This sort of building conversion can be done tastefully. When the Century Theater at Clark and Diversey was converted into a mall back in the 1970’s results were much better. To the chagrin of architecture fans all interior elements were removed. But the street-facing exterior was completely retained. It made a nice presentation.
Oak Street does seem to have benefited from this project. According to the Chicago Tribune having such a prominently placed vacant property was a millstone for the neighborhood and that would only make sense. Crain’s Chicago Business reported that the project helped push rents on Oak Street up over 25%.
But it would have been nice if they had just torn the theater down. Either that or they could have stripped off the exterior and refaced everything. It might be easier to understand if there seemed to be a genuine effort at preservation. But it was probably just cheaper to keep the sections that were retained.
© 2016 practicalchicago.com