LINCOLN PARK — Bringing a 12-year dream to reality, Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped break ground Monday on a $6 million renovation of Theater on the Lake intended to allow it to remain open year-round and play host to special events.
"I've been waiting 12 years to get this done," Emanuel said.
Mike Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Park District, owner of the building since 1953, called Emanuel "a passionate supporter of this facility," and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) cited how Emanuel first proposed making it a year-round theater while still a congressman representing the North Side.
"It's unfortunate we can only use this setting three, four months of the year," Emanuel added.
Not as of its planned reopening on Memorial Day. It will have an enclosed 330-seat theater, as well as a restaurant and a meeting room in between. Combined with a semicircular patio with a view of the Gold Coast skyline to the south, it's expected to be a desirable space for special events as well.
"I'm sure this is going to be the next great place to get married," Smith said.
The rehab proposal was approved by the city's Plan Commission in October. Originally built as a sanitarium in 1920 at 2401 N. Lake Shore Drive, it was converted into an open-air theater in 1953. In more recent years, it played host to a rotating group of small, storefront theaters and sometimes became a haunted house at Halloween, but that was about as late as it could remain in use in the calendar year.
"Now I'm proud to say we're going to put some serious money into it," Kelly said, "and make it a state-of-the-art facility."
"This building was run down and needed serious rehab," Smith said. "This project is going to revitalize this historic building."
Kelly said it would "preserve the historical design elements of this architectural treasure," while adding a restaurant as well as "an outdoor patio and terraces with views of the majestic skyline and lakefront."
Emanuel said it would combine "three great strengths of the City of Chicago: our lakefront, our theater and our culinary experience."
"Arts and culture is the No. 1 business in the 43rd Ward," Smith said, adding that it would now have a new and gorgeous new venue.
Meghan Beals, artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, said her group would join in a program she called "Theater on the Lake, Theater in the Works," with one playwright to be selected to write and develop a new play for production at the theater during the 2018 season.
Emanuel and Park District Supt. Mike Kelly first announced plans to convert the theater to year-round use three years ago, but it wasn't until this year that they were able to move forward on the project.
Lakefront Hospitality Group will run the restaurant and other concessions. It will split proceeds with the Park District, including rentals. Lakefront's John Wrenn testified before the Plan Commission in October that the south patio would be a location "unparalleled in the city," with food he described as an "upscale pub menu."
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