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Essanay Studios Restoration Plans Shelved

By Adeshina Emmanuel | December 12, 2013 4:20pm
 St. Augustine's College showed off plans for a $3 million renovation of Essanay Studios.
Essanay Silent Film Restoration
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UPTOWN — A fundraising effort to restore a silent film studio that played host to Charlie Chaplin was cut short this week after the college that owns the studio's building declined to continue funding the project.

St. Augustine College, which owns the building in which the historic Essanay Studios resides at 1333-1345 W. Argyle St., decided Tuesday to pull the plug on the project, citing an unwillingness to dig deeper in its pockets for fundraising efforts that haven’t received ideal returns.

“We’re a small institution, we don’t have the deep pockets that other institutions do,” said St. Augustine President Andrew Sund. “We can’t keep using college resources and hoping that eventually fundraising will work, because we’re really just taking it away from other projects."

 Gary Keller in Studio A, which used to be Charlie Chaplin's personal auditorium.
Gary Keller in Studio A, which used to be Charlie Chaplin's personal auditorium.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

Gary Keller, 49, vice president of Essanay Studios and strategic initiatives at St. Augustine College, had been leading an effort with supporters from the film, digital media and business world to restore and reuse Charlie Chaplin's former stomping grounds in Uptown, Essanay Studios.

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, with locations in Uptown and California, produced hundreds of movies from 1907-1917, in the heyday of the silent film era.

Earlier this week, Sund sent the Essanay Studios board of advisers an email notifying them that the college could no longer sustain the restoration project, which he told DNAinfo Chicago has only raised about $23,000. The project was expected to cost $3 million.

He said that December was a benchmark month for fundraising goals, which he said, with $23,000 raised so far, was at most “20 percent of that.” The college had already put new lights in the studio, a Chicago landmark, created a historical structures report and invested “probably more than $20,000,” in those efforts and others.

Keller’s vision was for the complex to gain a new life as a performance arts venue, film production studio, education center, and community gathering space. The project was expected to take up to three years.

It had looked like the Essanay project had some wind in its sails this fall.

The building was highlighted as one of Uptown’s historic gems during Openhouse Chicago in October, the same month that Keller and cohorts launched a fundraising campaign and threw a gala to draw awareness and funds toward the restoration. On Dec. 2, the studio hosted a holiday party in that same vein.

Keller, a Douglas Park resident who lived in Uptown for years, said “there was an amazing growth and momentum of the project,” also aided by a lot of media attention received by the restoration effort.

He said he understands Sund’s perspective. The college “needed to constrain some of its efforts for financial reasons, and therefore needed to focus on those things that were closest to the college’s mission of bilingual education,” he acknowledged.

But he’s disappointed, all the same.

“I think it’s disappointing that we truncated this effort as it was building momentum, and gaining support and producing results,” Keller said.

Sund said that the money raised so far will still go toward restoring Essanay’s iconic terra cotta facade. But at this point, with the college unwilling to put more resources toward fundraising or spend its own money on the project, it would take outside interest and funding to make the vision of a restored Essanay Studios a reality.

“It is possible," Keller said. "There’s always the possibility that somebody will step up.”

He said his love for Uptown “and the rich history the community has” is undiminished by this setback. Keller, founder and former president of the Uptown Historical Society, has also restored the former Sheridan Park home of John Ferris, who was a nickelodeon and silent film theater owner.

He repeated an idea he emphasized often during his time at the helm of the restoration effort — that the Uptown studio’s importance to the history of early film “is one particular aspect that defines Chicago that is untold.”

“I think it’s important for the community to look at how to ensure that this historic resource continues to be an asset for the future,” Keller said.