The Forum assembly hall in Chicago’s Bronzeville community, which dates back to 1897, has seen better days. But, for a team of local preservations led by property owner and Bronzeville neighbor Bernard Loyd, the long-vacant structure’s future looks bright thanks to its recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.
The historic designation not only highlights the Samuel Atwater Treat-designed building for being “an admirable representation of a late 19th-century meeting and social hall,” but recognizes it for hosting performances by the likes of Nat King Cole, Muddy Water, Milt Hinton, and many other blues and jazz greats.
For Loyd, and his Urban Juncture community development corporation, The Forum and its ongoing rehabilitation will be a catalyst for restoring the 43rd Street corridor.
“What ought to be the most vibrant retail area next to the train is blocks of blighted and vacant land, says Loyd. “But The Forum is still there. It is the only building that remains intact from the Black Metropolis era. It’s a unique link to the past, but can also inspire the future.”
The Bronzeville resident took on the project as a way to focus his energies on improving his own community after “spending 13 years in corporate America working for companies far away.” Loyd had unsuccessfully tried to purchase the property 17 years ago, but couldn’t reach a deal with its owner at the time.
Loyd’s opportunity to save The Forum came eight years later when the building ended up on the city’s emergency demolition list in 2011 when its water damaged facade created a dangerous situation.
“The grout had washed away, so when it rained, bricks would come tumbling down from 30 feet up,” recalls Loyd. Facing the possibility of getting stuck with a huge demolition bill from the city, the owner of The Forum took Loyd up on an offer to buy the vacant structure.
The first order of business was stabilizing the structure and getting everything up to code, which took about year, Loyd says. That was followed by efforts to clear debris out of the interior and tackle repairs to portions of the building, such as pieces of the floor and roof.
Being added to the National Register of Historic Places brings wider recognition to the South Side property and also makes The Forum eligible for historic preservation tax credits that can help fund its restoration.
Loyd and his colleagues are also interested in securing local Chicago landmark status for The Forum, which could open up additional avenues of city funding and assistance. “A Chicago landmark designation would help to get us resources for further rehabilitation, but much of that work needs to get done before the city will consider the designation. It’s a bit of Catch-22.”
In the meantime, Loyd and his team are continuing efforts to recruit partners and utilize the building’s newfound national historic status to apply for incentives. They’re also looking for opportunities to reopen smaller sections of the property—like the storefronts of the west annex, which can be redeveloped separately from The Forum’s main building.
Loyd says his experience working on The Forum’s revitalization revealed some of the ways existing historic preservation programs struggle to produce results in communities where capital is difficult to come by. But he hopes the project will be a success and can serve as a model for other areas of the city struggling with disinvestment.
“There isn’t another Forum in the city, but you see properties like it all across black and brown Chicago. We’re talking about churches or theaters or other culturally significant sites that can be at the heart of transit-friendly, historically inspired development.”