It’s been decades since a 103-year-old Prairie-style building on South Boulevard near Harlem Avenue operated as either a vaudeville theater or a movie production company. 

For years it has operated as an office building. New ownership of the building at 1111-1113 South Blvd., however, could breathe new life into both the structure and the Pleasant District shopping area.

The building, which was originally home to The Playhouse, a 700-seat vaudeville theater and movie house designed by famed architect E.E. Roberts, was recently purchased out of foreclosure by Mike Fox, owner of the Carleton Hotel, for $450,000.

Fox told Wednesday Journal that the building, which is “right at the backdoor” of the Carleton, needs a lot of work, but he’s hoping to get it back on the market as soon as possible.

“I hope to have it rented sometime in the next three months, but you never know — it could be 2-6,” Fox said.

He said plans for an 11-story, mixed-use development by Lincoln Property Company just west of the building and the recent opening of the Irish-themed restaurant Connolly’s Public House next door will create more foot traffic in the shopping district.

Fox said the 5,000-square-foot ground floor of the building could be subdivided or rented out as one space. The second floor, which has roughly 2,200 square feet, could remain office space.

Fox said a lot of work needs to be done on the building, including removing dropped ceilings and taking down non-load-bearing walls. He described the project as a gut rehab.

“The building needs everything,” he said.

Several businesses already are looking at the space as a possible restaurant or entertainment-type venue, Fox said.

Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, said he occasionally gets calls about the building from people eager to learn more about its history as a theater and movie production company.

“People think of the Lake Theatre (1022 Lake St.) as the landmark theater it is, but The Playhouse started Oak Park in the movie theater business,” Lipo said. 

Lipo noted that the building was distinctive for its time because of its retractable skylight roof, allowing patrons to watch movies under the stars, and refrigeration in the basement that acted as an early form of air-conditioning.

The theater was converted into a movie production studio in the 1920s and operated under the name Atlas Educational Film Co., which was run by members of Oak Park’s Rehm family, Lipo said. 

The historical society occasionally gets calls with inquiries about Atlas because the films — which focused on education, corporate and industry training films — mention that they were produced in Oak Park, Lipo said.

Located right across from the train station, the theater must have gotten a lot of visibility with workers returning home from the city. “It’s a good location for a theater because people would come home and check out a movie,” he said.

Fox hopes to create that kind of synergy with other businesses in the district and the new housing that is planned for not only next door but all along Lake Street.

He said the building will be “easy to manage and something good for the neighborhood.”


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