The Uptown Theatre's opulent decay | Bleader

The Uptown Theatre's opulent decay


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Downstaging Uptown
  • Eric Holubow
  • Downstaging Uptown

Last Saturday I went with my 83-year-old grandmother to see Eric Holubow's photography exhibit “In Decay—Stitching America’s Ruins” at the Chicago Cultural Center. My grandmother grew up in Uptown and used to spend her Saturday afternoons going to the Uptown Theatre, where she’d spend ten cents on a vaudeville show and talkie picture. When she stood in front of Holubow’s photograph Downstaging Uptown, she said, “Oohhh, the lobby was so beautiful! It was like a palace with gorgeous frescoes and marble floors. Mies van der Rohe said ‘less is more.’ But in these kinds of theaters, more is more.”

The Uptown Theatre opened in 1925 with 4,381 seats and 46,000 square footage. It was the heart of Uptown’s entertainment district (a district that Rahm wants to revive). But as the middle class moved from Chicago to the suburbs, the theater rapidly lost its audience. It officially closed after a water pipe burst in 1981. Downstaging Uptown depicts the theater’s opulent decay. Every inch of the place is colored with decorative columns, ornate carvings resembling church organs, and peeling paint. It’s a gorgeous, melancholy, and nostalgic photograph.

Holubow focuses on rejected places. Whether it was due to the collapse of American industry or shifting demographics, he manages to capture decades of change within a single photograph.

Another Chicago-based piece in the series is Nurse’s Kitchen, taken inside Michael Reese Hospital before it was demolished in 2008. The bright orange cabinets are reminiscent of mid-20th-century design, and the dust-covered floors and yellowed newspaper suggest passed time. As my grandmother and I studied Nurse’s Kitchen, a woman next to us mentioned that she was born at Michael Reese Hospital. My grandmother told her she also knew countless babies born there.

In my interview with artist David Hartt he spoke about the intended purpose of a building and the reality that evolves over time: the closest a building ever gets to its intended purpose is the day it opens. Holubow’s photographs represent the most extreme examples of this. When my grandmother and I were leaving “Stitching America’s Ruins” she said to me, “It’s sad to me, seeing these places decay and disappear. When they disappear, it feels like part of my life disappears with them.”

Mon-Thu 8 AM-7 PM, Fri 8 AM-6 PM, Sat 9 AM-6 PM, Sun 10 AM-6 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington.

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