John Dušek knew a thing or two about bringing the community together. In the early 1890s, Dusek developed a grand, massive public space to do just that. The building—known as Thalia Hall—sits at 1807 South Allport Street at 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood.
And, in a fitting tribute to the theater on the upper level, Thalia Hall is now enjoying a second act.
The building was an early example of a mixed-use development. It was named for the Greek Muse of comedy, with apartments and retail stores alongside the theater. Like many old structures, Thalia Hall was neglected and needed massive work. Enter Will Duncan and Bruce Finkelman, the team behind The Empty Bottle bar in Ukrainian Village and the Longman & Eagle inn in Logan Square.
They’ve already opened a restaurant and bar on the ground level of Thalia Hall, named Dusek’s, naturally, and retail tenants followed. Next up is renovating the theater, which should be ready for prime time by early 2014. Finkelman said the genesis of the Thalia Hall rebirth was around February, 2012.
“We often joke that you don’t pick a project, the project picks you,” Finkelman said. “This was one of those situations. It was just a beautiful property. It gave us an opportunity to modernize it and reuse. That’s what really attracted us to it.
“It was built in the 1890’s, so a lot of the infrastructure was outdated,” he said. “So, we had to make the transition between decades and find a purpose for the property that would work in modern times.”
When a 120-year-old building undergoes a renovation, there are always surprises, and Finkelman said that was certainly the case with Thalia Hall.
“There was some very ornate stonework and a stained glass window that covered the original address, before Chicago changed to the grid system,” he said. “We found 12 five-by-five-foot green rooms in the hall with tin ceilings, which we re-used.”
Finkelman said the idea was to incorporate architectural elements from the original design, pay respect to the intent of that structure and enhance it wherever possible.
“The only things we changed were chairs and banquettes. The ceilings and lighting are original. It was important for us to keep them because it’s part of the history of the building.”
Finkelman said the theater will be a new venue in the area for performances, in a few short months. He also plans to make the building a meeting place for the Pilsen community, with events geared toward the culture of the area. In other words, just about the same basic idea fostered by one John Dušek.