NORTH LAWNDALE — When Blanche Killingsworth would come to see a show at the Central Park Theater in her youth, she picked the same seat every time.
It was a ground-floor seat with extra legroom along the aisle, where Killingsworth could take in the grandeur of the theater and get a close look at the performers. Before coming to North Lawndale, Killingsworth had spent the 1950s in segregated Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws made sitting in such a seat a taboo for a Black child.
“We were never allowed to sit on the lower level. We always had to go upstairs. So being able to sit at this level made you feel real special,” Killingsworth said.
Central Park Theater, 3531 W. Roosevelt Road, was an entertainment hub for the Black and Jewish communities in North Lawndale after being built in 1917. But after closing in the late ’60s, much of the old theater has fallen into disrepair.
Killingsworth, the head of the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, is fighting to restore the theater.
Though the architecture and design of Central Park Theater are stunning, Killingsworth said its real value comes from the people who have enjoyed it throughout its history.
“The North Lawndale community is embedded in that one building,” Killingsworth said.
Theater company Balaban & Katz built the theater, and it honors the Jewish community that once thrived in Lawndale, Killingsworth said. Likewise, the theater’s eventual transformation into House of Prayer parallels the transformation of Lawndale into a Black neighborhood anchored by community churches.
“It’s about retaining the history of all those communities that have been in North Lawndale,” Killingsworth said.
Restoration on the theater began after 1971, when it was bought by the House of Prayer Church of God in Christ to become a place of worship for a neighborhood congregation. The congregation poured in resources to make it usable for church.
“Everything is almost similar. The same tile that’s on the floor when you walk into the theater is still on the floor from 1918,” said Robert Marshall who became pastor at House of Prayer in 2016.
Even when the theater was not in full working order, the building was used by the church as a gathering place to worship and for after-school programs.
As the House of Prayer was slowly attempting to restore the theater, the church welcomed world-renowned gospel artists like Shirley Caesar and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
“It was known as the gospel headquarters of Chicago,” Marshall said. “All of those top groups, that’s where they came, to House of Prayer. Everybody in Chicago knew.”
Progress on the restoration was halted by financial difficulties.
Deterioration of the building led to the church being fined by the city for violating building codes, which caused the theater to be shut down again. Despite those challenges, the church has been able to preserve much of the original details, molding, tilework and light fixtures.
Now, the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society and the church have joined with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago, Preservation Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Office of Engagement, and Future Firm to form the Central Park Theater Restoration Committee to bring the theater back to its full glory.
“If it wasn’t for the House of Prayer Church of God and Christ, I don’t think the theater would still be standing. They’ve done a really great job,” said Mary Lu Seidel, of Preservation Chicago.
The group is trying to keep the theater up to code so it will not be at risk of being torn down. Organizers brought in preservationists and architects to do assessments of the building to prioritize the projects needed to restore it.
The latest phase of work will focus on getting the roof repaired to prevent further water damage, and getting a furnace to keep the auditorium warm to stop temperature damage.
House of Prayer is accepting donations on GoFundMe to finance the work.
The group is also nominating the Central Park Theater to become a Chicago landmark, which would protect it and build momentum to the restoration efforts. The theater has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation is largely honorary and does not offer the same tax benefits and protections as a city landmark.
The preservation committee shared a virtual tour and a discussion of the history of the partially restored building for Open House Chicago.
The nearly-1,800-seat auditorium is just one section of the historical building, Killingsworth said. The groups are working to restore the building not only as a cinema and performing arts theater, but also as a solution to many other needs of the community.
Killingsworth sees possibilities for the units above the theater as affordable housing, a performing arts center for young people or as a small business incubator.
“I used to go to the doctor there. I used to go to the dentist there. There were businesses above the theater,” she said.
The restoration committee put out a survey to Lawndale residents to gather input on what the building could be used for.
“As a history person, history builds your future. So you take that old building and you roll it into what’s new now,” Killingsworth said. “This can be an economic arm for North Lawndale.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.