Rich in history, a crumbling Bronzeville landmark grabs the spotlight

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Once the social epicenter in Black Chicago, the Forum Hall is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places

By Erick Johnson

It looks like an abandoned, imposing grand church building from a bygone era. The red brick masonry and the handsome arched windows have captured the attention of pedestrians for more than 120 years. Vacant and crumbling, the Forum Hall—a building where trumpets blared and people boogied down during Bronzeville’s gilded era—is back in the spotlight.

The historic building was recently named to the National Register of Historical Places, joining four other Chicago area landmarks to make the revered list. The Forum Hall is the only structure in Chicago added to the list this year.

There are more than 350 places listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places in Chicago. This includes 94 sites on the National Register of Historic Places listings in South Side Chicago. Many of these sites are in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood.

The latest national historic designation of the Forum Hall brings attention to an important piece of history that has fallen hard to timeand neglect.

Forum Hall was the largest dance hall on the South Side. Jazz music’s elite lit up the place to the delight of Black spectators. West of King Drive, the Forum Hall was just blocks away from the Metropolitan Theater and Regal Theater on 47th Street. Although Forum was on 43rd Street, it was the anchor that kept the area hopping. Dance enthusiasts who wanted to learn the Charleston or the Jitterbug would come to the Forum Hall.

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Despite its significance to Bronzeville’s rich culture and history, the Forum Hall is a forgotten relic that’s not even an official Chicago landmark.

Nearly a decade ago, a movement began to restore the Forum Hall to its former prominence. With limited funding and support, the restoration campaign hasstruggled to gain steam, but the national designation may provide a much-needed boost to return the faded landmark at 318 East 43rd Street to its former glory.

The Forum Hall was built in 1897 when Bronzeville was a predominantly white neighborhood called Grand Boulevard. Construction began shortly after the nearby “L” stop opened in 1892 at 43rd Street.

THE FORUM HALL in the 1960’s.

Chicago Alderman William Kent and his father, Albert, both of whom were white, built the Forum Hall building as a social and political meeting hall. It was built in three sections, starting with the corner building known as “Forum Hall.”

Back then, wealthy Irish, Scottish, English and German Jews and European residents lived in mansions and elegant brownstones in the area. The Forum Hall became a place where they would meet and attend political meetings. The Forum functioned continuously as a dance hall, containing a large hardwood ballroom in the second floor Forum Hall, which is perhaps the oldest surviving hardwood ballroom dance floor in Chicago today.

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The building also had a massive stage where big jazz bands and orchestras played. Predating the ballroom boom of the 1920s—brought on primarily by the jazz movement—the Forum hosted concerts, dances and lessons, while also serving as a community meeting space. Six retail stores on the ground floor contributed to the diverse and commercial district on 43rd Street.

The Great Migration which began in 1916 transformed the neighborhood into a Black mecca for shopping, entertainment and cultural enrichment for people of color on the South Side. By 1925, the Forum and 43rd Street had become part of the ‘Black Metropolis.’

During that time, key organizing groups, including the National Negro Council, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Packinghouse Workers, and workers and organizers within the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a booming number of other Black social clubs and fraternal organizations were not welcome at conventional halls or other meeting places in white neighborhoods.

The Forum eventually became a popular music scene in Chicago, attracting prominent jazz and blues musicians, including Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and Floyd Campbell. Captain Walter Dyett and Milt Hinton also played there. A 1965 obituary in the Chicago Defender stated “… Nat assembled bands to play school proms and Sunday dances at the old Warick and Forum Halls, where admission prices ranged from 25 to 50 cents.”In his book, “The Autobiography of Black Jazz,” the late real estate mogul Dempsey Travis wrote, “The Forum is best remembered as headquarters for Professor Watts’ Monday, Wednesday and Friday night dance school. It was also the scene of afternoon high school hops, and unforgettably romantic spotlight dances, where an appropriate theme song would be Lil Green’s, “Romance In The Dark.”

A 1938, Time magazine article noted that with 100,000 fewer Negroe than New York, “it is the center of U.S. Negro business; last census figures showed Chicago’s Negro establishments had annual net sales of $4,826,897. New York’s were only $3,322,274.” Census figures in 1970 noted that 8,747 Black-owned businesses were in operation in Chi- cago and grossed more than $332 million.

The Forum Hall would continue Academy Award®-winning movie. Robert Redford’s character, Johnny Hooker, is chased out of a bar in the Forum building and is chased up the CTA platform and makes a quick getaway in the neighborhood. After the closure of “Forum Hall” and the second-floor performance space in the 1970s, the building fell into disrepair.

THE FORUM HALL-remains gutted as a fundraising campaign to restore the structure drags on.

Retail and other establishments community group, Urban Juncture, stepped in to try to save it.

According to Landmarks Illinois, Urban Juncture invested $250,000 in the cleanup and stabilization of the building and worked with a broad group of neighbors to develop a phased plan for rehabilitation.

In 2014, the group held a special block party that was part of Open House Chicago, the annual event that allows residents to tour and learn about historic buildings. The event included dance lessons, music and a preview of “Juke Joint,” a short film that was shot in the building. Massive Black and white canvases of jazz musicians were placed in the arched windows on the building’s façade. Over 1,100 people attended the event, according to the South Side Weekly.

Today, the Forum Hall remains a gutted, crumbling building. Urban Juncture originally planned to open the Forum Café, but lost a Small Business Improvement Fund grant from Chicago when their building permit was denied.

Some of the windows remain open, exposing the interior to the elements. In 2018, Landmark Illinois put the Forum Hall on its list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois. One community leader estimated that it would cost $25 million to fully restore the Forum Hall. The Crusader reached out to Urban Juncture for comment, but haven’t received a response.

THE BACK OF the Forum hall in Bronzeville.

According to a banner on the building, the group did receive a $100,000 grant for a new roof from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Another banner said an additional $50,000 is needed to build the new roof. The banner asks individual donors to text FORUM to 44321 to donate to the campaign.

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