At the corner of 18th and Allport Street in the Pilsen neighborhood, there is a large, imposing building. It was built in 1892 by a saloonkeeper named John Dusek (pronounced “DOO-sheck”). The building has changed hands many times over the past 120 years, and witnessed a significant change in the surrounding community as its demographics shifted from Bohemian to Mexican-American.
The sturdy building has miraculously remained with little signs of exterior wear and tear. The innards were another story, needing a lot of money and some tender loving care. Enter Bruce Finkelman, the owner of the Empty Bottle and Longman & Eagle, and his partners. Finkelman, like Dusek, is a saloonkeeper. It’s fitting that he’s restored the grand old building to its former glory.
Last week, the Chicago Architecture Foundation held a behind-the-scenes tour of Thalia Hall. Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian of the City of Chicago, offered insights into the long, unusual trip Thalia Hall has made. Here’s what I learned.
1 The design of Thalia Hall was created by architects Frederick Faber and his partner William Pagels in the Romanesque Revival style. Faber and Pagels, immigrants themselves, were often the architects of choice for the immigrant community. Thalia Hall was completed around the time of the openings of the Columbian Exposition. Chicago—and Pilsen—had definitely arrived.
2 The building was inspired and influenced by the opera house in Prague. It has a cut-stone front made of Bedford limestone, and rock-faced masonry. Each one of the stones had to be shaped just the right way to create an even pattern.
3 The construction cost of Thalia Hall was $145,000. Most large commercial buildings in that era ran closer to $50,000, so this was a stretch for John Dusek. Maybe too much of a stretch. By 1902 he was broke. A petition of bankruptcy that year (docket #7210) showed Dusek’s liabilities at $25,700. His personal assets: $200.
4 Thalia Hall became both a community gathering place and a center for the arts. That wasn’t unusual for this Bohemian community. Although the residents had tough, backbreaking manual labor jobs, they had a deep love for music and theater. In fact, more pianos were sold in Pilsen in that era than anywhere else in Chicago. You could walk down the street and see pulleys hauling pianos up three- and four-story buildings. Pilsen had poetry reading clubs and accordion orchestras, too.
5 The building changed hands and was purchased by a real estate investor, but it continued to operate as a venue for parties and theater productions and community meetings. By around 1910, it adapted to the times and became a movie theater and vaudeville stage. It’s likely the Keystone Kops films were shown in Thalia Hall.
6 The windows could be adjusted to change the interior lighting to create the right mood for what was going on inside. If it were a community meeting, the organizer might want brighter light. For a dramatic theater production, the auditorium would be dimmed. The interior lighting was adjusted by a series of exterior iron shutters that could be raised or lowered. Those shutters are still intact.
7 All the balcony fronts, and much of the ceiling and detail are made out of sheet metal. That was fortuitous. Many old theaters start to deteriorate over time, but the use of sheet metal helped preserve much of the interior of Thalia Hall, so all it needed was a good cleaning.
8 The phenomenon of the small town opera house was alive and well during the late 19th century. Every town would build an opera house. They would be very similar to what you had in this building. A flat floor in the theatre, multiple rooms for meetings, and features like the dome in the center of the ceiling, which had lights.
9 Owner Bruce Finkelman and his partners had a choice when they took on the task of renovating Thalia Hall: to bring everything up to 2014-era design or leave some things as they were. They decided to go with the latter on some of the exposed walls. “When we first came in here, it would have been irresponsible to just slap a coat a paint on it,” Finkelman said. “There’s so much history and personality here. So we left some of the wall décor just how we found it, just cleaned up and clear-coated.
10 When the current owners took possession and began restoration efforts, preservation of the existing structure was paramount. Even a seemingly simple matter like installing an HVAC system was complicated—so much so that it had to be airlifted by helicopter to the roof to avoid disturbing the ceiling.
11 A stained glass window just over the entrance is original and even bears the original address (756-758 Allport) before Chicago changed over to the grid system in 1909. Around that same time, another noteworthy saloonkeeper took up residence at Thalia Hall. That was none other than future mayor Anton Cermak.
12 The wooden floor of the theater has the same planks that John Dusek and his neighbors walked on in the 1890s. But, the floor almost changed drastically a century later. In the early 1980s, a gentleman who owned a chain of shoe stores also owned Thalia Hall. Every kind of shoe you’d want was stacked up in the building like a giant shoe warehouse. He wasn’t really sure what to do with the theatre but he had an idea. He started to disassemble the wooden floor and install colored glass in its place. He was planning to turn it into disco. Yes, gentle readers, Tony Manero and Donna Summer very nearly invaded Pilsen.