"There's always been an understanding of the historical value of this building, so there has always been an effort, albeit minimal sometimes, to maintain what Essanay had here," Sund said. "But now we are at the right point in the college's history and the history of this neighborhood to begin a restoration project to make this building belong to the community in which it sits."
School officials chose Johnson & Lasky as the lead architectural firm on the project because the group specializes in high-profile restoration projects such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas House in Springfield and Holabird & Roche's Marquette Building in the Loop.
Marguerite Kindelin, a silent-movie buff who is Johnson & Lasky's lead architect on the Essanay project, says this is a unique challenge.
"Part of our task is to look at older documents and photos to get a sense of what the building was like during its period of significance," said Kindelin. "But the school isn't just interested in the history, but also the future. So the historic structural report will not only include details on the restoration of the facility, but also on how it should be used in the future."
A key component of the project is a proposed early film museum, which would not only pay tribute to Essanay, but overall film production in Chicago. In 1910, one-fifth of the world's movies were made here, primarily by Essanay and Selig Polyscope, which became the first major studio to make the move west to Southern California.
"The significance of early filmmaking in Chicago is known by a lot of people, but there isn't really one known location in the city where that story is being told," said Gary Keller, who was hired by St. Augustine to be the project's lead consultant and coordinator. "This seems like the perfect place to tell it."
Luckily, there is already an existing Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, California, the studio's one-time location near the Bay Area. So Keller is working closely with that museum's administrators, talking about sharing memorabilia with them, including films, posters and cameras from the silent era.
"We've been providing information to them, and we're definitely willing to share our experiences," said Dorothy Bradley, president of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.
Of course, the main focus of the museum would involve the history of Essanay, which was founded in 1907 by early film pioneer George K. Spoor and G.M Anderson, who became film's first major cowboy star, known as "Broncho Billy." Essanay's title was derived from the first initials of the two founders' last names, S and A.
Spoor, who in 1894 with inventor Edward Hill Amet developed the first 35mm projector, was largely responsible for Essanay's technical prowess. Anderson, meanwhile, created a worldwide sensation with his "Broncho Billy" one-reel and two-reel westerns, which were shot on location, first on the North Side of Chicago, then in Colorado and California.
Together, these men cultivated actors such as Wallace Beery, who dressed in drag as a Swedish maid in a series of Essanay comedies before becoming famous during the sound era in movies like "The Champ" and "Viva Villa"; andFrancis X. Bushman, best-known as one of the leads in the 1925 version of "Ben Hur."
But it was Chaplin with whom Essanay is most identified. The comic was signed by the studio in late 1914 and made one film in Chicago ("His New Job") before shooting the remainder of his Essanay films in California.
"The myth was that he left Chicago because of the cold weather, but in reality Chaplin left the Chicago studios because the structure was too regimented — they wanted him to shoot from a script provided by their script department," Kiehn said. "Chaplin didn't work from other people's scripts, and he told them so."
When Chaplin left Essanay for Mutual Studios in 1916, Essanay's fortunes declined. Anderson left the company as well, and Spoor closed the studio in 1917. The Argyle studios were eventually sold to Bell & Howell, which used the buildings for its commercial film subsidiary, Wilding Productions. Bell & Howell had control of the building until 1973, when WTTW-TV moved in and used the facility until the late '70s.
Sund said that the restoration project would bring the building back full circle to its roots.
"There may seem to be very little to connect the mission of this institution with the film industry, but we serve an immigrant and second-generation community to help them develop as professionals in Chicago," Sund said. "And in a similar way, many of the people who came and filmed in this building, including Chaplin, they were coming from other parts of the world, learning about Chicago and becoming professionals in a new country. So we believe there is great continuity."