Manuel Herz Architects
Traces of Past Futures
The Central Park Theater was one of the most important social and cultural hubs of Chicago; it was the place where Benny Goodman played his first concerts in the 1920s; it was where gospel and blues musicians invented new styles in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the most historically significant movie palaces in the United States, the Central Park Theater is one of the first of its kind and became a model for buildings of its type that followed. In 2020, a committee of interdisciplinary partners joined in collaboration with the church to plan for a sustainable restoration and redevelopment of the theater as a way to give back to the North Lawndale community. Currently, a planning process is underway to seek funds to address deferred maintenance and restoration priorities, while continuing ongoing community engagement.
For the 2021 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Central Park Theater was paired with Switzerland-based architect Manuel Herz—whose work focuses on the agency of local communities in shaping urban space—to develop a site-specific installation that contemplates a future for the theater that promotes and highlights the community of North Lawndale. This project, titled Traces of Past Futures, prompts residents and viewers to envision a future where the Central Park Theater forms the nucleus of a neighborhood as an important social and cultural hub for the city as a whole.
Traces of Past Futures recreates the floor plans, sections, and domestic spaces of the buildings that once stood next to the Central Park Theater until the 1960s. The memories of the musical and theatrical performances are brought to life through a presentation of visualized and recorded oral histories. The installation invites the community to carry out events and activate these spaces in order to demonstrate the transformative possibilities of vacant urban spaces.
The project is the result of a collaboration between the Central Park Theater Restoration Committee as well as the architectural offices of Manuel Herz Architects (Basel) and Future Firm (Chicago), and the artist Thomas Melvin.