CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) — You’ve probably driven, walked or even biked right by it dozens of times.
The historic Theater on the Lake structure off Fullerton was built in the early 1900’s.
“Originally it was used as a TB sanitarium for kids,” said John Wrenn, who’s with the Lakefront Hospital Group. “It was an open-air building that gave the kids fresh air and to sooth them.”
Free health services, milk and lunches were provided to more than 30,000 children each summer until 1939, when the sanitarium closed.
“It’s changed over the years. It used to host USO [United Service Organizations] shows and became a theater in the 50’s and the park district took it over in the 80’s,” Wrenn said.
In 1914, the Chicago Daily News offered to fund a more permanent sanitarium building. Constructed in 1920 on a landfill area, the structure was one of several Lincoln Park buildings designed by Dwight H. Perkins of the firm Perkins, Fellows, and Hamilton. Perkins, an important Chicago social reformer and Prairie School architect who designed several Lincoln Park buildings including Café Brauer, the Lion House in the Lincoln Park Zoo and the North Pond Café.
Major reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive led to the demolition of the building’s front entrance. During World War II, the structure became an official recreation center for the United Service Organization. The Chicago Park District converted the building to Theatre on the Lake in 1953.
Wrenn says over the years, the structure became run down and unusable.
“It could only be used in summer before. When we put windows on in August, it’s the first time this building has ever been enclosed.”
Now, after a $7 million restoration and redevelopment project, the 6-acre campus is now a year-round restaurant and event space.
“The Lakefront Restaurant is open every day. We are also now a special event space. The beauty of the building is that it’s versatile in that it can be divided into four separate spaces,” said general manager Susan Nicholl.
“Whether it’s a corporate meeting, a wedding or a shower, it really has a lot of multiple use offerings,” she said.
The campus is on Fullerton Drive and the lakefront.
“It’s a new section of Chicago’s front yard. Whether you walk or bike here, it’s a great space for concerts inside and outside. It’s important the people feel a connection to the building,” Nicholl said.
The theater and event space can accommodate up to 1,500 people.
“We’ve already got plenty of events booked. The restaurant has been open since November. We can also host live music here. We’re going to kick off with a couple of concerts in February,” Wrenn said.
The restoration was paid for by the Lakefront Hospitality Group, which also must pay rent for 10 years and share a portion of its revenue with the Park District.
“If you were here a year ago, you wouldn’t recognize the place. We enclosed it. We redid the roof. It’s all brand new,” said Wrenn.
Executive chef Cleetus Friedman offers a traditional menu, a full-service tavern that seats 125, with many more on the outdoor patio.
“What used to be here was a rundown place. Everyone who comes in is just blown away with what used to be here and what’s here now. We kind of polished a gem on the lakefront. This jewel needed some polishing and we did it.” said Wrenn.