BRONZEVILLE — A former dance hall that was a popular stop on the Chicago jazz and blues circuit in the '20s is being revived to its former glory on the South Side.
Years of neglect have take a toll on the 114-year-old Forum, 318-328 E. 43rd St., but a new owner is working to revitalize the massive structure to what it once was: an anchor of the Bronzeville community.
"This is the key property on 43rd Street — period. It carries with it a lot of the history, a lot of the emotions of this neighborhood," said Bernard Loyd, a former management consultant turned urban development steward and leader of Urban Juncture, the group behind the Forum's revival.
"People just don't know what this community was, and we'd like to preserve that history," he said.
Loyd has spent the last 20 years living near the Forum, and half of that time trying to buy the place from its former owner. But it wasn't until the 30,000-square-foot structure was slated for demolition in 2011 that his final bid was accepted.
So after about 40 years of sitting unoccupied, the Forum began its return to greatness — a history that includes dozens of various uses. It was once the home of the Black Elks, served as a dance hall for now legendary black musical acts, and played an important role for the Communist Party of the 1920s.
According to website Chicago Patterns, the Forum is possibly the oldest still-standing hardwood floor ballroom in Chicago.
But the structure has taken a beating in the last 40 years, despite being "very well-built" and "pretty structurally sound." Corroded wood in the ceilings, caved-in floors, crumbling masonry and enough debris to fill two dozen 40-yard dumpsters are among the least of its problems.
Loyd and the hundreds of volunteers who have come out to sweep, chip paint, wash floorboards and otherwise nurse the Forum back to health show that the communal need for a public meeting space is present.
Now, Loyd said, the Forum will need about $25 million in investment to truly get off bed rest and back on its feet as an art gallery, performance hall and community hub.
"Today, we drive our cars up to the North Side to find what could already be here," Loyd said, pointing out various spaces in the building that formerly housed a large dance floor, balcony, stage and a bar once tread upon by Robert Redford in the movie "The Sting."
"Lots of people have lived here for dozens of years and never been inside; we need to do this right so we can come here."
Loyd gets the full range of interest from residents, he said, from those who have never given the structure a second thought on their way to the 43rd Street Green Line, which borders the Forum, to seniors who can name music acts they or their family members saw perform there.
"Hey, what y'all got going up over there?" one man called out from across the street Wednesday afternoon as Loyd locked the Forum's 43rd Street entrance after a tour of the building.
"A coffeehouse," Loyd yelled, summarizing plans for the Bronzeville Cafe, the first stage of the Forum's rescue, scheduled for completion late next year.
"Oh man ... that'd be great," the man said, pensively gazing up at the Forum steeple.
Though a complete rescue of the Forum itself isn't due to be complete for another two to three years at least, Loyd hopes next year's opening of the cafe will draw investment and greater attention from the community. Urban Juncture already has hosted several communal art events around the building and nearby locations.
All that's left is a full revival of the once-thriving commercial and artistic district for 43rd Street in historic Bronzeville.
Check Urban Juncture's Facebook page for current updates on the Forum's progress.