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Back in The Loop

Project: Hampton Majestic Hotel and LaSalle Bank Theatre, Chicago, IL

Architect: Booth Hansen, Chicago, IL; George Halik, AIA, principal

Contractors: Bovis Lend Lease, New York, NY; Bulley & Andrews, LLC, Chicago, IL (façade)

By Eve M. Kahn

The past few years have been rather rough on Chicago preservationists, given the number of tragic fires in historic buildings (including a factory, a church and a house designed by Louis Sullivan) and government-sanctioned near-demolitions (including a proposed façade-ectomy of a 1920s limestone office spire designed by George Maher). But a very bright spot has just compensated for some of the city's losses: the reopening of a 1906 theater in a frothily ornamented terra-cotta office tower turned boutique hotel.

The 20-story structure, designed by German immigrant architect Edmund R. Krause, was originally called the Majestic Building and is now officially the Hampton Majestic Hotel. The theater, the first major commission for architect George Rapp, who was later renowned for his extravagant movie palaces, has been known as the Majestic and the Shubert. It is now officially the LaSalle Bank Theatre, so named after a major sponsor of its restoration. Throughout the four-year, $40-million project, the Chicago architecture firm Booth Hansen shrewdly and resourcefully balanced the needs of modern theatergoers and hotel guests, all while recreating long-lost soaring rooms in a palette of crimson and gold.

On the steel frame's creamy terra-cotta cladding, Krause incorporated foliage, shields, scrollwork, lions' heads, scallop shells and faux rusticated blocks. "The ornament system is ornate and very consistent," says Richard Koenigsberg, the project's façade restoration consultant. The building was briefly Chicago's tallest, and the eight-ft.-deep cornice – meant to be seen in the round – spans four elevations. Rapp was likewise allowed to spec lavish materials inside the 2,000-seat theater. He slathered white marble across walls, floors, columns and staircases in barrel-vaulted or double-height spaces. "Even the bathroom stall dividers were marble," reports George Halik, a principal at Booth Hansen.

The Majestic at first hosted vaudeville marathons – a dozen acts a night, six days a week – but by the 1920s was presenting a mixture of movies and live performers, including Harry Houdini and Lillie Langtry. Shuttered during the Depression and World War II, the theater reopened as the Shubert in 1945 and kept that name until last year (even though it has belonged partly to the Shubert Organization's rival, the Nederlander Organization, since 1991).

Luminaries such as Katharine Hepburn and Carol Channing trod the Shubert's boards, and major Broadway shows from "Guys and Dolls" to the recent "Monty Python's Spamalot" either debuted there or traveled there on post-Broadway road trips. Theater bookers and audiences like the intimate space and fairly restrained décor, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has explained: "If you want to hear a lyric or see a raised eyebrow, rather than watch a helicopter land, this is your theater." Thanks to Rapp's subtle Neoclassical details, Jones points out, "the show doesn't have to fight the walls."

The Shubert's popularity, however, often caused overcrowding in the narrow lobby and took its toll on the materials, while leaving little downtime between shows for repairs or expansions. By the time Booth Hansen was brought in for preliminary studies five years ago, there had been, according to Halik, "very little work done on the building since the 1940s." A cornice chunk had fallen in the late 1990s, and a sidewalk bridge had been lingering at the entrance ever since. The auditorium and lobby were painted beige and brown. The offices had been chopped up into what Halik calls "class C space." The plumbing, he adds, "was basically rotted out, and some of the wiring was covered in asbestos, so we had to have the electricians and the environmental experts working as teams in isolation to pull the wires."

Booth Hansen faced a few other unwelcome surprises during demolition. "It was always an adventure," Halik says. The stage framing had been sliced wherever visiting set designers over the decades had needed trapdoors – Halik calls the result "a real Swiss cheese. But we needed to keep the stage's dimensions the same, because it's similar to Broadway stages, which means the sets don't have to be rebuilt when they travel."

In the office building, a 20-story steel flue seemed useful for adaptation into the theater's ADA-compliant elevator shaft, "but then we found out that it was only supported at ground level," says Halik. "We had to drive beams into the flue at the top of the five-story elevator shaft, to support the 15 stories of flue overhead." The façade, says Koenigsberg, also required some drastic interventions: "We replaced 1,385 pieces of terra cotta with replicas from [Lincoln, CA-based] Gladding, McBean, including three of the cornice's four corners, and each corner is ten linear feet."

But overall the project's pleasant surprises outweighed the bad news. In the lobby, Halik notes, "we knew there was a glorious double-height space above the false ceiling." But the architects did not expect to find, in a ground-floor retail space (now the box office and concession area), mahogany paneling behind drywall and a vaulted ceiling molded with elaborate strapwork. On the marble stairs, Halik says, "we thought that the railing infill was painted plaster, and then we were amazed to discover that it's solid cast brass." (It was probably painted over during World War II, for protection from scrap-metal salvagers.)

While bringing back Krause and Rapp's intended grandeur, Booth Hansen snuck in upgrades for modern fire codes. A helicopter hauled in the hotel's 70-ton fire-stair tower, which is suspended over a back alley. "It's connected now to a long-blocked interior stair that had originally been used for Jim Crow-era segregation," Halik explains. "This relic of a terrible time in history finally benefited the community in a way" – by making code-compliant egress possible.

The theater reopened in May 2006 with an appearance by the original "Phantom of the Opera," starring Michael Crawford. Architectural reviews have been gushy: the Chicago Sun-Times has called the reborn LaSalle "the belle of Chicago's theater ball."

The 135-room hotel, which opened in April 2007, is decorated with framed photos of the theater, and many overnight guests have come to catch a show downstairs. And whenever public tours of the theater have been available, Halik says, "There've been lines around the block. People who remember going there as children, who have such powerful memories associated with the place, want their children to see it." TB

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