Art vs Architecture in Prairie Avenue District

A battle between arts advocates and architecture buffs is brewing south of the Loop. The focus of the dispute is the Swiss Products building, an empty, rundown warehouse built in the late 1920s at the corner of 18th Street and Indiana Avenue. On one side of the issue is the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), which wants the building demolished; on the other side is the Department of Cultural Affairs and a contingent of supporters who want the building converted into a space for artists.

The CAF maintains that the Swiss Products structure, which the city bought in 1976, not only has no redeeming architectural value but also blocks what should be the main entrance to the Prairie Avenue Historic District, which the CAF has been working to develop. They want a park on the site. “We’ve worked so long to make the district a mini-Williamsburg,” says CAF executive director John Engman, “and the Swiss Products building is an eyesore that ruins the integrity of the district.” Other CAF board members say they are not opposed to working with the city to develop an arts colony in and around the Prairie Avenue district, but resent the city’s efforts to retain the Swiss Products property. “We feel our long-range plans have been disrupted,” says Hill Burgess, a CAF board member and chairman of the Prairie Avenue Historic District committee.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, on the other hand, says it is committed to helping artists find work space in the city at affordable prices. Deputy commissioner Nick Rabkin already has talked to at least half a dozen arts organizations interested in moving into the 30,000-square-foot space, including one that wants to establish an American Indian Cultural Center and another, the Blues Heaven Foundation, that wants to open a museum and a center for blues performance and education. Still, Rabkin maintains he is sensitive to the CAF’s significant presence in the neighborhood. “We are willing to look at other options in the neighborhood if we can find them,” he says, adding “if we can’t, I hope the Architecture Foundation will work to make the use of the Swiss Products building less objectionable.”

Rabkin says he probably will issue a request for proposals from developers and arts organizations interested in the Swiss Products building. He says the CAF is free to submit a proposal to demolish it. In a very real sense, however, the arts community and the CAF need each other to make the Prairie Avenue Historic District a viable vision. A concentration of artists in spaces such as the Swiss Products building, and the related restaurants and other businesses they would attract, ultimately would help the CAF by attracting more local residents and tourists to the district. Whatever fate awaits the Swiss Products building, a developer already has contracted to buy a large structure across the street that he wants to open up, in part at least, to artists.

Endangered Singers Prompt Lyric Tiff

The Lyric Opera production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor opened on schedule, but not before tempers flared and some staging changes were made to ensure the cast’s safety. Matters came to a head, according to one cast member, at the lengthy final dress rehearsal, with director Andrei Serban seemingly in charge. “He was trying to push everyone as far as they could go on the set,” said the cast member, “and he was asking us to do a lot of things that wouldn’t be safe.” The Lucia set–by British scenic designer William Dudley, here making his Lyric Opera debut–is a complicated, hydraulically driven unit that becomes a castle, a grotto, and a mountain at various points in the action. Serban, also making his Lyric debut, apparently did not take kindly to demands for last-minute staging changes from Lyric’s director of operations, Bill Mason. “There was shouting,” said the cast member, who witnessed the tense dress-rehearsal showdown. Serban did not attend the opening-night dinner for stars and Lyric executives.

Prelude to Prelude

The Big Ticket Entertainment Series, a schedule of eight dance and theater events at downtown and off-Loop venues, has signed up approximately 2,000 subscribers on its way to a goal of at least 3,000. Meanwhile, the start date for the first production in the series, Prelude to a Kiss, has been pushed back to mid-February because Michael Maggio, the director originally picked to handle the job, was unable to commit to the show. Sheldon Patinkin is expected to step in. Michael Leavitt, who directed Pegasus Players’ fall hit Broadway Bound and the upcoming Solomons’ Choice at the National Jewish Theater, is slated to direct Lend Me a Tenor, another Big Ticket offering. Leavitt, one of the principals in the Big Ticket partnership, got the nod to direct from author Ken Ludwig.

Prelude to Profits

Closer Than Ever, the musical revue about life and relationships by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, did not make back its $350,000 investment off-Broadway, even though it earned a rave review from a New York Times critic and ran for about a year. “The New York run gave it a kickoff,” says Maltby; he and Shire expect the show to go into the black after it is licensed for other productions, such as the one that opens Sunday at the Apple Tree Theatre in north suburban Highland Park. An earlier off-Broadway Maltby/Shire revue, Starting Here, Starting Now, didn’t make money until the creators began licensing the show to some 400 additional productions around the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.