Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Down They Forgot as Up They Grew: Woods Theater

The Woods Theater at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph
with about ten years of life remaining (Photo Courtesy of streetsandoul.com)
My favorite poem, the poem I taught every class every year for 33 years, is anyone lived in a pretty how town by e. e. cummings.  Nearly impossible to figure out at first reading, it speaks, I think, to the unfortunate loss of innocence that humans experience as they grow older and are initiated into the responsibilities of adulthood.  

The poem applies to great cities as well, and it fits especially well with the rise of Chicago as a world-class city.  In "growing up" cities many times leave behind the buildings of their early years, tearing down innovative structures and then forgetting about them as progress sweeps the population into the future.  So once in awhile I intend to blog about the great buildings that down may be forgotten as up the city has grown.

The Borden Block
Courtesy of chuckmanchicagonostalgia
At the the corner of Randolph and Dearborn, Chicago has seen two such buildings disappear.  The first at this location was the Borden Block, the first project on which many architectural historians believe that Dankmar Adler and the young Louis Sullivan worked together.  It was a building notable for the "elegant balance between load bearing structure and ornamentation." [Manieri-Elia. Louis Henry Sullivan. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996] The Borden Block was completed in the early 1880's, one of the leaders in the first generation of skyscrapers that would change the way every city built tall commercial structures.  

The Borden Block was demolished in 1916 to make way for the Woods Theater, which survived for 74 years until it, too, was razed in 1990.  The last two films shown in the theater before it closed in January of 1989 show how bad things had gotten in the theater district.  I'm Gonna Get You Sucka and Hellraiser II entertained a scattering of moviegoers before the screen of the Woods finally went dark.

The Chicago Tribune of January 8, 1989 lamented the loss, not just of the Woods, but of all the Loop's movie palaces.  "The demise of the theater where Gone with the Wind premiered on a reserved-seat basis in 1940, beginning an engagement that lasted an entire year, will make Monday the first day in more than three-quarters of a century that the city's Loop will be without a movie theater," wrote Rudolph Unger in The Trib.

According to the Cinema Treasures website The Woods was named after Colonel J. H. Wood who ran Wood's Museum at Randolph and Clark Streets until it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.

What was left of Wood's Museum after the fire
(Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org)
Marshall and Fox, architects who gave the city such lasting gems as the Drake Hotel, the Blackstone Hotel, the theater next to the Blackstone (now the Merle Reskin) and the South Shore Cultural Center, designed The Woods, which was decorated in a Venetian style on the exterior.  The interior combined Middle Eastern and Oriental styles.

The Woods was far from the biggest movie palace in the Loop; it seated just over 1,100 customers.  The United Artists Theater, for example, just across Randolph Street had seating for over 1,700.  The Rialto Theater, also designed by Marshall and Fox, had seating for over 1,500 at 336 South State Street, just north of what is now the Harold Washington Library. 

When the Woods opened in 1917, sound films were still nearly a decade away from production.  The first primitive introduction of "talkies" occurred just as the Oriental Theater opened its doors in 1926.  Back in those day folks came to the theaters for entertainment, but they also came to escape the dirty, grimy and hectic city, entering into elaborate palaces that were air-conditioned in the summertime, a particular draw since air conditioning was rarely used anywhere else.
Imagine . . . over ten thousand seats in a four-block square, all of them sold out on the weekends and nearly filled on the weekdays right up into the 1950's.  People back in those days dressed up "to go to the show."  It was a big deal, and anyone could look like a big spender in a nice suit or a pretty dress once he or she entered the gilded interiors of those theaters. 

Then it all fell apart, fell apart in the space of a decade, maybe a little more for some of the lucky ones.  There were lots of reasons.  Theaters with multiple screens out in the suburbs.  Mayor Byrne's malling of State Street.  The movement of high-end retailers to the north side of the river.  The natural flow of dollars away from the Loop as the money shifted west and north to the shiny new towers along the river, the vacuum that was left drawing in action-seekers from the projects to the south where the planners hadn't thought much of providing entertainment or even any shopping of significance.  There was the conversion of Block 37 into an urban gravel pit in 1989, the same year that The Woods came tumbling down.

We've kept a few of the old palaces.  The Harris and the Selwyn, just around the corner from the old Woods, have been gutted and are now part of the new Goodman Theatre complex.  The Chicago on State Street was completely restored with help from the city and even got an opening serenade from Frank Sinatra in 1986 when its nine-month restoration by Daniel P. Coffey & Associates was completed.

There are a few others.  But, of course, it will never be the same as it was in the middle of the last century when Chicago had its own version of Times Square.  In 1989 Paul Gapp, the architectural critic for The Tribune at the time, wrote:  "Today, people dressed in the surreally chic, factory-faded sport clothes . . . pay upwards of $10 to sit in a tiny contemporary movie theater while devouring bulimia-size containers of popcorn and soft drinks and watching screen fare heavy on dismemberment and sexual coupling.  When architectural splendor once compensated for the silence of films, food now fills the vacuum crated by the sterility of the theaters.  The downtown dinosaurs are dead, and those who personally remember the glory days of picture palaces are fading away as well."  [Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 2, 1989]

Petterino's, on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph, is a classy joint with good food and an efficient waitstaff.  It's rooted in nostalgia to the point of taking its name from Arturo Petterino, the long-time maitre d' of the famed Pump Room.  But somehow the appearance of a steaming plate of Pappardelle Bolognese can't make up for the loss of the grand movie house that once stood in this place.

One last word, three years before it bit the dust, The Woods made an appearance in the most memorable movie of the 1980's, Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Fast forward to 1:09 in the following cut; The Woods is on the right side of the cop, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City is on the left.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

This post is kind of ironic. Several places in from the Dearborn/Randolph intersection is the popular Garrett Popcorn shop. The smell is intoxicating, espcially when they are popping caramel corn. They may have lost the movie theater, but they still have the popcorn...