The unfunny thing that's going to happen to The Forum: Demolition planned for decaying Bronzeville landmark

June 6, 2011

The Forum--the storied, century-old Bronzeville hall where labor history, civil rights, jazz and even U.S. Communism intersected--is set to be demolished soon by the city, according to an alderman.

On her ward's website, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said an emergency demolition will be sought for the 112-year-old building at 43rd and Calumet because of "extensive structural damage and loose, falling bricks" found by city inspectors who investigated the interior and exterior of the old hall. There is no timetable yet set for the demolition.

But the building hangs this close to demolition--whenever it may come--is enough of a reason to sound the alarm. Built in 1899, the Forum was solid piece of architecture with its big hall set above storefronts. The building's nine arched hall windows, nicely quoined brick corners and its name prominently formed in terra cotta on the front facade are among the structure's most noticeable features.  And it is close to public transit with the 43rd Street Green Line stop a few steps to the west. Then there's the history. We'll get to that in a moment. Lets took at the architecture a bit more...

Here's a full-on look at the Forum's front. The brickwork along the roof and around the windows is handsome. But look at the disrepair, too.

The big center window up-close as a pedestrian passes:

The Forum was a multipurpose gathering place--one of scores built around the city in the late 19th and early 20th century. The South Side Master Plumber's Ball of 1913 was held there, and drew 250 couples who danced to an orchestra. The Communist Party held meetings there in the 1920s and 1930s, often discussing labor issues. The first unionized black workers at the Union Stockyards met there. The place was impressive enough to draw the 45th national convention of the African-American lodges of the then-segregated Elks in 1944. The organization spoke out against racism, Jim Crow and intolerance, according to a Tribune story on the gathering.

The late jazz man Milt Hinton, the master of upright bass, got his start at the Forum around 1930. "When I was eighteen or nineteen, I played my first paying job at the Forum Hall at 43rd and Calumet," Hinton says in his autobiography Playing the Changes. "I'm not sure who I worked with, but I know it was a dance and we got paid according to how many tickets were sold." And how's this for irony? While the bulldozers are being pointed at the Forum, Hinton's home in Queens New York was given landmark status this year. The home is in the newly-created Addisleigh Park, Queens historic district, a black enclave where the likes of Hinton, Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald and W.E.B. DuBois lived.

Here's some of the loose brickwork at the Forum. The sidewalk below is cordoned off with a single construction horse and two strands of "caution tape."

The building's owner operated a liquor store on the first floor until recently. While the hall was closed off and forgotten to history, the corner first floor storefront was open seven days a week and, according to its painted-on sign, doing business from 6AM to midnight. So the building was in use--and making money--as its owners let it fall into this shocking disrepair.

Will a "Save the Forum" preservation effort erupt over this? Here's hoping so. Buildings are precious to Bronzeville's revival. For better than 25 years, the Bronzeville community has used its rich architectural resources and vivid black history to slowly lure middle-class folk, investment and commerce into the area---and it's a hard battle. But in that war, buildings as bad off as the Forum have been saved, restored and are contributing to Bronzeville's resurrection. Buildings like the old Wabash YMCA at 38th and Wabash, and the former Eighth Regiment Armory at 35th and Giles which became the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville lead the list. Why can't it happen for the Forum? Razing the building is not yet a  fait accompli: a demolition permit has not yet been pulled by the city as of this morning.

Having the Forum wasting away on a prominent corner doesn't help matters. But demolishing it to create what likely will be another urban prairie--another vacant lot--only makes matters worse.

 

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