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Thalia Hall

2010 June 29
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS 2010

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.

CNS 2010

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.

CNS 2010

Today, much has changed for Thalia Hall and its surrounding community. The majority of Pilsen’s present day population is made up of Mexican immigrants, though even that is now changing. The area has been going through rapid gentrification in recent years, with an influx of more affluent inhabitants moving to the neighborhood due to its proximity to the Loop and several universities.

As for the Hall itself, though its 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 and commercial spaces. An Italian restaurant, Ristorante Al Teatro, is the new focal point of the lower floors. Though not specifically restored to the look of an 1893 saloon, 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 inspire the restoration of the theater back to a state of splendor.

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*UPDATE: Since the writing of this post, new proprietors have assumed ownership of Thalia Hall. They have opened a new and popular restaurant, “Dusek”, on the site of the above mentioned Ristorante Al Teatro, and have been making significant strides towards completing the restoration of the main theater space by the spring of 2014.

 

 

13 Responses
  1. Lori McCarthy permalink
    June 30, 2010

    I’m impressed, Caroline. What an interesting history and great pictures too.
    Lori

  2. Cayla permalink
    June 30, 2010

    i have always wondered about this building!

  3. June 30, 2010

    What a great post! There is so many structures that we pass by everyday. Nice of you to take the time. Thanks for sharing.

  4. July 1, 2010

    Forgotten Chicago is putting on a tour of Pilsen and Little Village on Sunday July 11th, spots are still available and we will be covering some of the stuff discussed in this article. Sign up > http://forgottenchicago.com/get-involved/walking-tours/tour-5-repeat-pilsenlittle-village/

  5. March 15, 2012

    hi i grew up there on the fourth floor 1213 w 18 th street i went to the school across the street seeing the buliding brought back good times i would love to come for a visted so much i do have some pictures to share and story too

    • September 30, 2012

      Hi Sally. I’m writing an article about the history of Thalia Hall for the Chicago Weekly, and I was wondering, could I interview you to ask about your memories of the building? Please e-mail me at saveyak@gmail.com if you’re interested. It would be great to hear your stories!

  6. Sharyn permalink
    August 14, 2012

    John Dusek was my great grandfather. Wish he hadn’t sold the building.

    • September 30, 2012

      Hi Sharyn. I’m writing an article about the history of Thalia Hall for the Chicago Weekly, actually. Could I interview you over the phone about your memories of the building? If you’re interested, please e-mail me at saveyak@gmail.com. Thank you so much!

    • Phil Murray permalink
      October 5, 2012

      Sharyn,
      My Grandfather, Thomas A. Murray, owned and operated a theater in Thalia Hall in the 1920′s and 30′s. I would like to correspond with you to see if in fact your Grandfather was the one he purchased the building from. My email is

    • Kathy permalink
      February 11, 2014

      I grew up in Pilsen and attend St Procopius grade school and high school. One of my classmates and dear friends in grade school was Barbara Dusek who lived on Alport less than a block south of 18th St. Were you related? Cousins perhaps? She died several years ago, and was an only child, but I do recall she had many cousins. Now I wonder if she was related to you and John too.

  7. Debbie permalink
    November 17, 2012

    I read recently that the building is in foreclosure.

  8. Joseph R Denemark permalink
    October 28, 2013

    I grew up on 19th and racine during the 40ths and remember going to the movies every sat. at thalia .I now live in Iowa and came in for a nostalgic visit this past weekend I remember going in on the allport side and when the movies were over we exited on the 18th street side.
    While here I realized there is more to the building than just a movie house.
    I have since gone on the internet and gotten a lot of information on the building thanks to your wonderfull article.I would have liked to tour the theater.

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