looking back at the documentation and deconstruction of the nortown theater over a decade since its demolition

by the time i arrived in the summer of 2007, the nortown theater was already dead. stripped of its utilities, burnt by fire, and extensively damaged by prolonged neglect.

note: salvaging/documenting the nortown theater's facade and its ornamental terra cotta was addressed in a previous blog entry, so the majority of the images in this entry are devoted to the theater's interior and the ornament salvaged from it shortly before and during the demolition. 

there were “pockets” that were unscathed by the elements, salvages, and stupid decision-making. i carefully navigated through these dark and cavernous spaces, guided by simple headlamp and eventually with the help of generators. to this day, i can vividly recall the roar of the generator piercing the silence – a trade off, obviously, for illuminating the entire auditorium and bringing to life the equipment for extracting ornament. all this was hastily underway before the wrecking machines reduced everything to rubble and trucked the remains off to the landfill.

i’m still haunted by the missed opportunity to visit the basement, which had been completely flooded. still, i managed to access the ceiling, with electrified stars embedded in plaster and configured to resemble the constellations to the point where the architect consulted with a university of chicago astronomer to assist in their placement across the plaster ceiling. 

the largely unaltered movie projector booth contained equipment dating to the theater’s earliest days, including a stationary double-chamber freestanding carbon arc brenograph that once projected clouds across the painted blue ceilings made to look like the sky or a starry night. there were several pieces of furniture and equipment (mainly manufactured by simplex or the chicago theater supply company) for handling films, storage, repairs, and so on that i meticulously documented and later removed during the salvage process.

i climbed in and around the walls and above the proscenium, where i discovered hundreds of compartmentalized, yet portable major brand “cove light” equipped with cobalt blue lenses designed to paint the ornamental plaster with a piercing blue light (at least that is how it was left, but the lenses where interchangeable). i grabbed as many as i possibly could, and attempted to breathe life into them by cleaning and rewiring them in my small shop on paulina street. to this day i keep a few intact units in the museum collection for the story they tell about ambient lighting in atmospheric theaters and the importance of the fabricator - the chicago-based major equipment company. these small light sources recessed in plaster ornament are important elements that transmit the “aura” of being in a depression-era movie palace, and i have documented or salvaged them in various buildings for over a decade since. 

when i examined some of the more pronounced ornament flanking the proscenium – located below the organ screens- i immediately noticed widespread decapitation of plaster figures. after pouring over historic images, i was appalled to realize how much of the original and incredibly special ornament had been ripped out - and quite recently! a former general manager came to the theater one day to say his farewell, and as a token of gratitude brought along several images he had taken in the early 1980’s of the interior. i was floored. very little had changed since the time it was constructed in 1931. i did discover that “architectural artifacts” had visited the interior in the early 1990’s, when it was converted into a church. they were surprisingly thorough in stripping the place clean of light fixtures, plaster fragments, organ screens, murals, signage and so on.

i was undeterred, however, recognizing that a great deal of plaster ornament, stair railings and exterior terra cotta still needed to be rescued. more importantly, it deserved to be documented - extensively. stuart and his team have been in some of the most remarkable buildings but they have rarely, if ever, taken the time to document salvage work. it is not a method i understand (note: i have nothing against stuart or his business - in fact, i've bought several artifacts for my museum. i just cannot wrap my mind around why he didn't document the magnificent buildings he salvaged). and yet, with the remaining ornament, i explored every inch of the theater to find the electric “stars” comprised of conical shade and blinker socket attached to a condulet box, one of the most fascinating finds. 

this salvage was really my first full-sized “laboratory,” where i could carefully deconstruct various ‘systems,’ to gain a better appreciation of the methods and materials used to construct the building. i learned a lot about forgotten trades, and used my mistakes, mishaps, and revelations as a guide for future salvages. the foundation of my approach to salvaging/documenting a building faced with death really began with the nortown theater. for that, the long-forgotten theater will remain very much alive in my memory, for as long as i continue to collect pieces of the dying buildings across the city.

a small selection of items salvaged in 2007 prior to its demolition: