Ask Lee Bey: Reader question reveals a slice of ancient Persia...at 79th and Stony Island

January 5, 2011

I received an email from reader Raquel M. Murphy:

I was on the Southside over the holiday weekend and noticed a church on the corner of 79th and South Chicago. The church looks like it was once a mosque. I also noticed its design was much like the Regal Theater, which is located about a block away. Do you happen to know anything about these beautiful structures? The inlay work on both buildings are gorgeous.

Raquel, thanks for the question. You've spotted two of the city's most unique buildings...and you have made a design connection that I'd never before noticed.

The brick and wildly-colored terra cotta church is the fellowship hall of Haven of Rest Missionary Baptist Church on the southeast corner of 79th and South Chicago. Built in 1928, it features a host of Middle Eastern influences, including a towering minaret. But it began life not as a mosque, but--can you believe?--a fancy restaurant called Raphael's. A little digging through newspaper archives and some lucky breaks during an internet search revealed the building was once a 450-seat eatery with a tea garden, dancing and even a live 11-member orchestra called Raphael's Persians, led by bandleader Herb Zeller. In 1929, the Presto Times, a music trade journal published in Chicago back then, said Raphael's "is so constructed that the acoustics are splendid, giving a resonance that is indeed very pleasing to the ear." Architect Frederick Stanton designed the building.

I wasn't able to dig up anything on Raphael's after 1930, though. Haven of Rest Church started in 1964 and acquired the building then or sometime shortly after. The building was used entirely as a church until the congregation built a larger adjacent building.

In the 1920s, before widespread international travel, architects borrowed design elements from far away locales in an attempt to bring foreign exoticism closer to home. And revivalist interpretations of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern/Moorish/Persian architecture were popular--a fact that leads us to the New Regal Theater on east 79th Street. That two buildings with Mideast influences were built so close to each other is remarkable. You can see the theater from Haven of Rest's front door:

 Built in 1927 as the Avalon Theater, the New Regal was designed by architect John Eberson. The big theater is alive with Mideast-inspired architectural details and patterns. Look at the dome on the left on the photo below. It looks like the decorative top of the minaret has been lost, though:

 And look at the box office. Imagine how good a show has to be in order to compete with an outside like this:

The New Regal closed a couple of years ago, but has reopened under new management. This Fox News Chicago report from November talks about plans for the theater, but also has some amazing footage of the interior. Meanwhile, the Museum of the Moving Image has a website with vintage and construction photos of the theater.