Here’s What Makes The Chicago Theater so Special

This week the Chicago Theater turned one hundred years old. You, me, and dozens of millions of tourists know it as an icon of the city.

Chicago Theater (file)
Chicago Theater (file)

Much has been written about the building by architects and historians and other people of letters. But when it comes to sizing up history, we always like to go to that most Chicago of Chicagoans, Carl Sandburg. He was there on October 26, 1921 when it opened; and those who couldn’t be, read what he wrote about it in the next day’s Daily News:

We may say either that the place as finally fixed up at a bigger of something like $4,000,000 looks like a building with the kind of embellishment that will capture the multitude while at the same time, with respect to art and architecture, there are much-bragged structures, such as the Congressional library in Washington, that make no comparison with the new Chicago theater in the matter of shine, flitter, and spread of munificence.

If the word “munificence” has you headed to the library to find a dictionary, you may also want to look up “sesquipedalian,” which Mr. Sandburg used in the paragraph before. If you don’t know what a dictionary is and don’t know where your nearest library is, it’s time to put down the TikTok.

Chicago Theater (file)
Chicago Theater (file)

We won’t get into the history of the building here. Sandburg and others have trod that road into ruts. But since it is a Chicago landmark, and it also turned one hundred this week, here are some of the reasons it deserves that honor, as noted by the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks on September 11, 1978:

  • “The opening of the Chicago Theatre ushered in a new national experience and soon introduced the Midwest, Chicagoans, and the Loop to the grand motion picture palace.”
  • The Chicago Theater was the first theater in The Loop designed from the start to show movies.
  • Architect Cornelius Rapp considered it his firm’s best work.
  • As magnificent as its outside is, the interior is even better. According to the 1978 city report, “The Chicago Theatre is a miniature Versailles, and like Louis XIV, Balban and Katz spared no expense on its workmanship and materials.”
  • In keeping with that notion, the main lobby was actually inspired by the Chapelle Royale at Versailles.
Chicago Theater (file)
Chicago Theater (file)

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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