1215-1225 W. 18th St.
Today we think of Pilsen as the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community. But if you look closely at the buildings housing taquerias and panaderias you will notice that they tell a different story: many seem more in keeping with the architecture of Prague than Chicago or Mexico. During the mid to late 19th century Chicago attracted a growing number of Bohemians. They settled in Pilsen, named for Plzeň — what was then the second largest city in Bohemia (today divided between the Czech Republic and Slovakia). By 1915 Chicago was home to the largest population of Bohemians in the world next to Prague, and much of that population was concentrated in Pilsen. Right in the middle of Pilsen sat Thalia Hall – the center for Bohemian culture, theater and political activism.
John Dusek, a native of Bohemia, understood the need for a community center in Pilsen and made it his priority to provide the area with one. Dusek hired the architectural firm of Faber and Pagels to design Thalia Hall. Completed in the spring of 1893, Frederick Faber and his partner William Pagels designed a Romanesque Revival style building characterized by a sense of massiveness, rusticated stonework and prominent rounded arches. It was built as a mix-used building with 21 apartments on the upper floors and a few ground floor commercial spaces providing the income to support the theater.
The design for the theater was modeled after the Old Opera House in Prague. A large proscenium arch frames the stage that was equipped with a full fly loft for the storage and changing of scenic backdrops. A second floor gallery wraps around three sides of the room terminating with ornamental roofed boxes on either side of the stage. No expense was spared in building Thalia Hall and its impressive theater. The cost of building similar public halls at the time were typically between $75,000 and $100,000. Dusek spent $145,000 – making it one of the greatest public halls in all of Chicago. With such a grand theater centered in a lively Bohemian community, it’s understandable that the Ludvic Players (a popular traveling theatrical group originating in Bohemia) performed only a handful of times at Thalia Hall before deciding to make it their home stage during the following decades.
Much more than theater was conducted on the stage of Thalia Hall. The Hall was a central gathering spot of patriotic meetings supporting the effort of creating a Bohemian state independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Chicago was home to the Bohemian National Alliance that merged with other groups to form the Czech-Slovak alliance. It was the efforts of this group that pressured President Woodrow Wilson to propose Bohemian statehood to the Allies in 1915. 1918 marked the birth of Czechoslovakia.
Today much has changed in Thalia Hall and its surrounding community. Now Mexican immigrants make up most of the population (even that is changing as the area is going through rapid gentrification). And Thalia Hall has changed too. Though the exterior has been restored to its original grandeur, the interior has suffered. The building fell out of use for a number of years leaving the interior spaces subject to water damage and disrepair. The current owner, Dominick Geraci, has taken great care in renovating the apartments (of which there are now eight) and commercial spaces. An Italian restaurant, Ristorante Al Teatro, is now the focal point of the lower floors. Though not restored to look just like the original saloon of 1893, it is in keeping with the style of that era. The stained-glass doors depicting stylized lily pads are one such new and welcome addition to the building. The theater, in great need of repair, is the missing piece of the puzzle. Perhaps a little heavenly intervention could help? Let’s call upon Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy and pastoral poetry, for whom this building was named, to restore the theater back to a state of splendor.
If you’re hungry for some gelato with a side of espresso be sure to visit the Ristorante al Teatro. You will be taken on a journey back into time through all of the pictures of the World’s Columbian Exposition (which was held during the same year as the building’s opening) and other historic Chicago images. If you are looking to open your own store, Geraci still has a couple of available spaces in the building. Check them out here. And if you’re more in the mood for BBQ instead of gelato — right next door is the ever so satisfying Honky Tonk BBQ. Regardless of your state of hunger, Thalia Hall is a building worth visiting.