As I see it, Chicago’s brief summers are for either spending time in the heat or spending time avoiding the heat, not for writing. We’ve been spending lots of time in the outdoors, taking trips, and jumping on the bikes for long rides through the city. It’s time for making beach plans, not sitting in a dark room writing blog posts. That said, HPRES-ist calls and it’s about time for something fresh and fun and summer-y.
Architect John Eberson’s unbuilt Heraldic Theater (1926). Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1926.
I’ve had a copy of this September 19, 1926 Chicago Daily Tribune article (image above) taped to the wall over my writing desk, a little discovery I made while doing research on my historic preservation thesis project on Chicago’s forgotten recreation center buildings. This “Fourteenth Century Castle Cinema” was designed by the great theater architect John Eberson (1875-1954) for a 22nd Street site in Cicero, Illinois, just west of Chicago. The program for this enormous project included a 2,785 seat movie auditorium — Eberson called it the “Heraldic Theater” — and an adjacent 200-room hotel (remaining true to the medieval spirit of the project, Eberson called the hotel a 200-room tavern – that’s some big tavern).
Walter Conley’s rendering of Cicero’s unbuilt Heraldic Theater (1926). Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1926.
With a projected budget of $1.8 million, it’s not surprising the Heraldic remained just a pretty picture. Lucky for us today, the Tribune published a rendering of the project drawn by Walter Conley, one of Eberson’s Chicago apprentices and later a successful local architect in his own right. Conley’s drawing shows Eberson’s vision of a medieval French town straight out of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with imposing castle towers and ramparts, a cathedral front with a great stained glass portal, and quaint half-timbered cottages. At the Heraldic, Eberson’s picturesque French town has been transported to Cicero, Illinois, smashed and squeezed together into a single semi-coherent structure to fit onto a tight suburban structure. If built, Eberson’s nine-story-plus Heraldic Theater complex would have towered over its one- and two-story Cicero neighbors.
The Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, home to Roman Catholic popes from 1309 to 1377 and inspiration for John Eberson’s unbuilt Heraldic Theater. Image from Wikipedia Commons.
In the Tribune piece, Eberson touts the inspiration of southern France’s former papal palaces. “We are thinking,” Eberson told the paper, “of Avignon, the walled city of warring popes, a massive golden silhouette, punctured by parapets and turrets, spotted with bright arches, blocked windows, and sealed doorways.” Eberson waxed poetic about this fortress in the midst of low-rise Cicero: “the atmospheric expression of 14th century style of architecture, with ramparts, arched bridges, city walls, and house turrets, picture the rain washed remnants of an old castle church and tavern clustered in a medieval hamlet, which is the inspiration and thought behind our architectural treatment of the Heraldic theater and tavern building.”
Call the design of the Heraldic Theater exaggerated if you like — it’s pretty over the top even for an entertainment center a important as Chicago. The cache John Eberson’s name brought to the project made for some local admirers. The Chicago Daily Tribune was a certainly a fan: the first line of its profile exclaims “Ah! If Only This Were On Our Own Boul Mich!” The Tribune even suggested topping the ramparts of “this great Gothic structure of impressive beauty and dignity” with machine guns, the perfect antidote to the organized crime that called Cicero home.
Chicago’s Paradise Theatre, designed by John Eberson and completed in 1928 (now demolished). Image from Chuckman’s Collection
Considering the fate of many of Chicago’s greatest entertainment structures like the Eberson-designed Paradise Theatre (built 1928, demolished late 1950s), the long gone Trianon Ballroom (built 1922, demolished 1967) or the Uptown Theatre (built 1925, on life support but still standing) one wonders if such a building as this “Fourteenth Century Castle Cinema” had been built, would such a giant have even survived for us to see it today?
More to come. Promise.