Classic Evanston theater fades from picture
People walk by the old Varsity Theater, located at 1706 Sherman (above The Gap store) in downtown Evanston. Three sites identified as a potential home for a new perfporming arts center do not include the theater. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 25, 2013 6:19AM
Evanston is beginning to shine the spotlight on downtown venues that could house the city’s next performing arts center.
Oddly, the building that was responsible for the study appears out of the picture.
City officials recently released recently their study on the performing arts center.
The study was funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grants and grew out of a previous study involving the reuse of the former Varsity Theater, once the North Shore’s grand movie house before shut in the early 1980s.
The three sites identified by the Chicago-based architectural firm, HBRA, which led the study don’t include the theater.
The Downtown Evanston Performing Arts Study, led by HBRA, identified three venues emerging from their discussions with performing arts groups as meeting group needs.
Under the proposal, one venue would house two flexible theaters, one would house a fixed form end stage theater for dance and music productions and one would be used as a resident theater facility by Northlight Theater.
Northlight made its home in Evanston before moving to more specious space in Skokie.
The study also identified areas where ideally the performing arts centers would be located.
The two flexible theaters would be located on a city parking lot facing the west side of Chicago Avenue between Clark Street and Church Street.
“The two flexible theatres that comprise Venue 1 would offer many opportunities for use by Northwestern University students and faculty productions,” wrote the authors of the study, “so it is placed at a site that provides a link between downtown and the university.
Venue 2, the dance/music theater would go on what are now occupied lots ad buildings facing the north side of Davis Street between Orrington and Chicago avenues.
A center at that site “would fit in well with the surrounding fabric that includes Fountain Square, the Chase Bank building tower, and the adjacent University Building, a two-story historic structure at the corner of Davis Street and Chicago Avenue.
Venue 3, a proposed resident theater facility for Northlight, would be located on what is now a parking lot and adjacent buildings at the southeast corner of Davis Street and Maple Avenue.
“The site is a prominent location at a street corner that would allow for a public lobby element visible from beyond tracks to the east,” found the study. It noted that “the area of downtown west of the train tracks is a less-commercially developed area than the east side of the tracks despite being equally proximate to transit and parking. As such, it would be a benefit to the region to position a high-profile company like Northlight at a location west of the tracks.”
The study’s authors acknowledged some strengths of the Varsity Theater, including its location (on the 1700 block of Sherman) in a busy part of Evanston, near dining opportunities, parking and mass transit, positive recollections and sentiment about the Varsity, a perceived restoration of a theater venue, “even though the use would be far different than the former cinema use,’’ the study added.
On the negative side, HBRA architects maintained the theater would be costly to upgrade, and that most of its shapes are not consistent with the recommended venues.
Asked about the assessment, Steve Rogin, the Varsity owner’s representative, said he was “disappointed” the theater “was viewed as a liability.”
“It shows the challenges facing communities to preserve old theaters that are part of their downtown,’’ he said.
Equally disappointing, he said, was the study’s assertion that the study team could not obtain drawings from the Varsity owner. In fact, on two different occasions, Rogin said he had offered to supply the plans, which are bulky, and the representative for the study team had not gotten back in touch.
City officials are now planning to formally present the DEPAS study to the city council for review at their Jan. 28 meeting, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said last week.
Meanwhile, community collaboration coordinated by the city, the Evanston Community Foundation and the Evanston Arts Council, are developing their own road map for the arts, based on extensive canvassing.
That work should be presented to the council by March, Bobkiewicz said.
“Then I think we’ll have to bring this all together and say how are we going to continue to move forward,’’ the city manager said.