“Some things stay with you,” says Linda Baumgardner. She’s walking and reminiscing with her sisters, Lillian and Sally, and the object of their nostalgia is a large, graystone structure on Allport Street in Pilsen. It’s a monumental building adorned with stone arches, the largest of which is emblazoned with the words, “Thalia Hall.”
Thalia Hall, designated a Chicago landmark in 1989, was built by Bohemian immigrants 120 years ago. Two-thirds of the building were taken up by a theater and public hall, the remaining third housed residences and storefronts. It was a place of dances and union meetings, opera and political movements. For Lilly and her sisters, however, the most important story to take place in the building was their own, when they moved here in 1957.
The family lived in the building in the late 50s and early 60s, in a tiny flat on the fourth floor. The siblings, especially Lilly, spoke for years about visiting their childhood home again, but now they are stepping inside the building for the first time in decades.
Today there is a tour of the old theater as part of Open House Chicago, and groups have been walking in and out of Thalia for hours. The residential spaces and storefronts of the building were renovated a few years ago after years of disrepair, and the current owner of the building, Dominick Geraci, hopes to renovate the theater one day. When Lilly heard of the tour, she immediately called her sisters. Today they’ve brought Lilly’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Sarah, along as well. She smiles when asked about Thalia Hall.
“I’ve heard stories about this building since I was ten,” she says.
At the close of the 19th century, Eastern Europeans, especially Czechs, flocked to Pilsen, attracted to jobs in the nearby railways, lumber yards, and textile factories. The Czech community, connected by a strong feeling of ethnic solidarity, revolved around social institutions like benevolent aid societies, churches, and political associations. Many in the community were active in the Democratic or Socialist parties (an 1877 Tribune article sneered that the area was a “hotbed of Communism”).
Yet one thing was missing in the social pantheon: a public house and center for the arts. Saloon-owner John Dusek wanted to build a grand theater space that could also serve as a public hall. Hence the title Thalia Hall, named after the Greek muse of comedy. Built across the street from St. Procopius Church, Dusek fashioned it in the Romanesque Revival style of theaters in the old country.
Pilsen was particularly abuzz in patriotic activism devoted to the creation of an independent homeland for the Czech and Slovak people. “[There] are stories that Thalia was used by the very nationalistic Czech community of Pilsen to conspire on the overthrow of the Habsburg empire, concocting schemes as to how the Czechs might gain their sovereignty,” says University of Chicago professor Malynne Sternstein, author of “The Czechs of Chicagoland.”
As the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled and world leaders met in Versailles, Thalia Hall was the center of an intense lobbying effort, which pushed Woodrow Wilson to advocate for Czech and Slovak self-determination. As a consequence, part of the constitution of Czechoslovakia was drafted in Thalia.
A new homeland and a growing economic foothold in the U.S. led, ironically, to the end of Pilsen as a Bohemian neighborhood. Fewer Czechs immigrated once they had a politically unified homeland, and immigrants moved to other neighborhoods as they moved up the economic ladder. Going through stages as a vaudeville theater and movie house, the theater closed in the 1950s. Shortly afterward, in 1957, the Baumgardner family moved in. The father was German and Swedish. The mother was the first Hispanic woman to move into the building, foreshadowing demographic changes to come.
“Everybody in the building knew everybody,” says Sally. As the three sisters walk around Thalia, memories come flooding back, and they start asking each other: what happened to the Nelsons? Where are Blago and Milan and Annie? The sisters have requested that their maiden name “Baumgardner” be used in this article, in hopes that someone from the old neighborhood will recognize the name and contact them.
Pete and Betsy’s Candy Store used to be in the corner storefront. The sisters speak of the store’s malted milkshakes like it was the ambrosia of the gods. The Baumgardner grandfather would stand on the corner and give all the kids in the neighborhood pennies to buy home-made candy and ice cream. Sally says she was a little jealous of how everyone loved him and called him “grandpa,” since he was her grandfather.
Linda notes that there was “nothing modern” about the apartment they lived in, even for 1957, and that it was infested with roaches. The sisters vividly remember an ultra-steep set of stairs that went up to the top of the building and a “dungeon-like” basement in the bottom. “There was a ghost in here,” Lilly insists.
The most daring adventure was to sneak into the theater, which was already shuttered by the 1950s. Kids all around the building were curious about it, and they even found a room still stuffed with costumes. Once, the sisters snuck in with their friend Rosemary Espinosa, though it was an experience not for the faint of heart.
When Dominick Geraci, the current owner of the hall, speaks, there are echos of John Dusek. “We have a thriving artistic community that could definitely use this space,” he says. By his logic, a theater would spark economic development along 18th Street, revitalize the neighborhood, and “give a theater to the community that [it] certainly deserves.”
For Thalia Hall, it has been a long tumble from grace. Even after being designated a national landmark in 1989, the structure fell into greater and greater disrepair. Doors were left unlocked–homeless people moved into the theater to sleep, and young people snuck in to hold raves. The apartments in Thalia Hall were still occupied, but the old owner couldn’t afford the repairs necessary to bring the building up to code.
So he sold it to Giuseppe Burlando, an Italian immigrant with romantic dreams of restoring the theater. He crafted the ethereally beautiful stained-glass pictures of lily pads that now grace Thalia’s windows by hand. In keeping with the Greek mythology theme, the stained glass is a play on the Latin name for lily pad: nymphaea.
In 2004, facing financial difficulties, Burlando decided to partner with Geraci, a fellow Italian immigrant who owns several properties in Chicago and runs his own real estate company, New Heritage Realty. In the middle of the tough job of restoring the building, clashes broke out over finances. Geraci accused Burlando of spending money too liberally, while Burlando accused Geraci of using funds from Thalia LLC on other projects.
By 2006, the apartments were restored, having been converted from fifteen residences to eight, and new tenants moved in. But that same year, Thalia LLC was more than 120,000 dollars over budget and owed over 17,000 dollars in overdue loan payments, according to an article published in the Chicago Reader in 2007. Burlando lost the building through foreclosure and Geraci bought it at auction. Burlando then sued Geraci, accusing him of colluding with the bank to manufacture a financial crisis, foreclose the building, and then get a loan from that same bank to buy the building back.
The suit continues to this day, though Geraci categorically denies all the accusations against him. “They have alleged a lot of stuff and obviously we have defended ourselves because we haven’t done anything fraudulent in any matters,” he says. He calls Burlando’s charges “sour grapes” and says that it is his former partner’s own fault that the bank foreclosed on Thalia.
“I don’t go blaming anybody for my shortfalls,” says Geraci. “If we have a problem financially, I take care of my own stuff. I don’t go around blaming people because a bank decided to foreclose on me.”
This summer, Thalia Hall again faced foreclosure. Geraci had filled two out of the five available storefronts in Thalia with his Ristorante al Teatro, an Italian restaurant outfitted to look like a luxurious 1892 saloon, but faced financial difficulties. Geraci says that he worked it out with the bank, restructured the loan, “and now everything is back on track.”
In online forums, residents have also accused Geraci of allowing the building to be used as a nightclub or rave space. Geraci says that a citation was issued against him for an event at Thalia, but “it was not used as a nightclub, but rather there was fundraiser that night,” and that the citation was dismissed. He also said that at another fundraiser, he planned a performance in the theater, but “an order came to cease and desist use of theater for that performance.” This makes sense, since the theater is still inoperable and needs to be restored.
Whatever troubles stood in the way, in the end a good portion of Thalia Hall has been restored, namely the residential and commercial spaces. But the plan for the theater is on standby for now. The restoration will cost around 4 million dollars, Geraci estimates. Still, he says that he is committed to restoring the theater eventually, once the economic crunch subsides.
Geraci was leading the tours of the theater for Open House Chicago, the weekend the Baumgardners visited. Modeled after the old opera house in Prague, it is still a beautiful space, at once grand and intimate. The stage is huge, leaving room for grand sets and spectacles, and is flanked by opulent opera boxes painted pistachio green and salmon pink.
There are no seats in the theater, as chairs had to be frequently taken in and out for dances and community meetings. One can imagine a crowd of dancers wisping across the creaky floorboards on a Saturday night 100 years ago, polka band up on stage.
Many of the visitors were impressed and thanked Geraci after the tour for starting to restore the building. One man, Greg Stepanek, told Geraci that his mother sang in a Czech choral group in Thalia. He hadn’t stepped foot in there since he was ten years old. “It’s good to see new life in it,” he said.
The sisters went on a separate tour that day, and met me afterward. As we talked on the sidewalk outside of Thalia, Rosemary Espinosa, the sisters’ childhood friend, pulled up in her car. Lilly had called her earlier, and she wanted to stop by and see if they had gotten to go inside.