Biograph Theater

Chicago, Illinois

September 01, 2007 |

Located in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Victory Gardens Theater Company has welcomed up-and-coming playwrights for 33 years. In 2004, the company expanded its campus with the purchase of the Biograph Theater for its new main stage. Built in 1914, the theater was one of the city's oldest remaining neighborhood movie houses, and it was part of Chicago's gangster lore: in 1934, John Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in the Biograph's alley.

Architect Daniel P. Coffey, FAIA, of Daniel P. Coffey and Associates, and general contractor Pepper Construction preserved the landmark exterior, restoring the façade and replacing the historic marquee with a replica of the original.

Inside, the old movie house had been chopped up into a hodge-podge cineplex. The Building Team and the theater company “wanted something unexpected and fresh,” said Coffey. Once inside, theatergoers would enter Victory Gardens' “new world.”

That “new world” had to be created in a relatively small space—30,000 sf—and on a tight construction budget—about $6.4 million. The Building Team created a lobby that puts on a performance of its own, creating the appearance of a pricier and larger space than it actually is. Hints of cherry hardwood trim and marble counters were used to suggest a heftier budget. Drywall “clouds” and mirrors were added to make it appear more expansive.

In the theater itself, the company wanted an intimate space for both audience and performers. The walls were painted rich colors of ochre and burgundy to create a warm atmosphere. The 299 seats were angled to achieve ideal sightlines with minimal blocking; no patron is more than 45 feet from the stage.

“There's not a bad seat in the house,” said Reconstruction Awards judge Walker Johnson, FAIA, who added, “While the regular theatergoers have remained very loyal, this new venue can only help vault Victory Gardens to new heights.”

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