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 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.
*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.