photographic study of uptown theater's ornamental terra cotta facade

the uptown theater (1925) is one of the few remaining "roaring twenties" neighborhood movie palaces left standing in chicago. the gargantuan structure is the last of the "big three" theaters (i.e., non-extant tivoli, 1921 and the extant chicago, 1921) designed by the architectural firm of rapp and rapp for the balaban and katz theater corporation founded in 1916. the spanish baroque style theater has been in suspender animation (i.e., closed to the public) since 1981.

despite water damage and neglect from decades of deferred maintenance, the theater is structurally sound, with nearly all of its ornament largely intact (thanks to the ongoing efforts by friends of uptown). the exterior facade (facing broadway street) consists of cream-colored terra cotta executed by the advance terra cotta company, chicago, ills. the terra cotta extending beyond the roofline was carefully deconstructed and placed in storage where it will rejoin the facade if and when the theater undergoes restoration.

additional work was done on the extant terra cotta located between the marquee and roofline in order to further stabilize (e.g., "blanket" and use of sealants) areas of vulnerability, where water and/or other invasive "elements" have weakened the terra cotta's anchorage. however, the sections of terra cotta outfitted with incandescent light bulbs sockets (used to illuminate the facade at night) are espeically at risk for water seepage, where continuous freeze-thaw cycles can compromise the integrity of the steel anchors within the rear cavities and/or lead to cracking among the interlocking panels.

finally, after carefully reviewing my photographs taken of the terra cotta frieze of alternating grotesques, urns, and oculi within the arch, it's abundantly clear that the presence of pigeon fecal matter, which is acidic and thus corrosive, could cause permanent discoloration and/or damage to the glazing if not addressed through the use of water, steam or various solutions (e.g., detergents) to safely remove it.

history on the advance terra cotta, the company awarded the commission to fabricate and outfit the uptown theater's exterior. 

image courtesy of the bldg. 51 museum archive. the full-page advertisement was discovered in a profusely illustrated 1928 rapp & rapp portfolio recently acquired by bldg. 51.

the advance terra cotta company was established in 1912-1913 by henry b. prosser, the former secretary of chicgo-based american terra cotta company. shortly after its founding, advance commissioned g.a. johnson & son as general contractor for constructing their plant in chicago heights, ills. the factory or plant - completed in 1913 - was built using brick and steel construction. the architects on record are patterson and davidson, with offices in the monadnock bldg., chicago, ills. prosser chose chicago heights for his plant, based on its shipping facilities and the abundant supply of quality clay found there.

the terra cotta company's plant was built on ten acres of land with the main facility measuring 400 x 500 feet. surrounding smaller buildings, were equipped with machinery for the manufacture of high grade terra cotta used for ornamental and fireproofing purposes. the founding officers were henry b. prosser, president, t.a. dungan, vice~president, and e. s. lewis, secretary. after 15 years in business, advance sold their plant to the northwestern terra cotta company in 1928.

additional photos of the terra cotta assemblage located above the uptown theater lobby's towering arched entry/exit facing lawrence avenue:


american terra cotta & ceramic company and the aragon ballroom:


i made a quick visit to the aragon ballroom prior to shooting the uptown's facade last weekend. like the uptown, i wanted to get a closer look at the aragon's exterior terra cotta to methodically document the ornamental assemblages and their present condition. i was equally interested in in capturing the application of the multi-colored glazes through the use of my 600mm zoom lens.

it's interesting to note that nearly a year after uptown was completed with advance's freshly applied cream-colored terra cotta, prosser's former employer, the american terra cotta company, was commissioned to dress the neighboring moorish style aragon ballroom's (1926) exterior, designed by the architectural firm of huszagh and hill. the visually stunning and brightly colored polychromed terra cotta is some of the finest work american did at the time.