At first glance, the Essanay Studio buildings in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood may seem fairly unremarkable.
The two red brick structures, located on the 1300 block of West Argyle Street, look from the outside like your typical early 20th century factory buildings. The only elaborate touch on them is the terra cotta main entrance at 1345 W. Argyle St., with the word "Essanay" over the doorway.
But these modest buildings provide an important link to early American cinema. Here, from 1909 through 1917, Essanay became one of the most prolific and influential movie studios in the world. Charlie Chaplin shot comedies here, and the movie careers of Hollywood icons such as actress Gloria Swanson, actor Wallace Beery, director Allan Dwan and gossip columnist Louella Parsons were launched at the Argyle Street location.
Behind the scenes, Essanay provided a blueprint for the way Hollywood would produce movies for years to come, helping to introduce sophisticated indoor lighting and factory-style movie production techniques that allowed the studio to release an astonishing six movies per week during the 1910s.
"It was one of the top studios of its time," said David Kiehn, a film historian based in Niles, Calif., where Essanay had its West Coast studios. "And even though Essanay also had studios on the West Coast, the majority of their films came out of Chicago. So these buildings have great historical value."
Now, almost 100 years after Essanay completed construction on its Argyle studios, and 16 years after the buildings received landmark status from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, plans are finally under way to recognize this illustrious past as part of a renovation and restoration project.
St. Augustine College, which purchased the two buildings when the school was founded in 1980, wants to revamp the older of the two buildings, the 1333 W. Argyle St. structure, built in 1909.
That building, which housed a film production space now serving as the school's auditorium, would be reborn as a multi-purpose facility housing a museum for early cinema production in Chicago, along with a space for cultural performances and perhaps a community center and other attractions.
"We're still defining what some of those attractions might be, but we're definitely thinking about an early film museum, a community center, a theater, perhaps a cafe," said Andrew Sund, the president of St. Augustine College, which primarily serves Hispanic students in the Chicago area.
The school also wants to restore the terra cotta entrance at the 1345 W. Argyle St. building, which was built in 1913. And the school also wants to restore many of the original features on both buildings — including the two structures' original windows on the Argyle Street side, which were bricked in after Essanay folded decades ago.
Fund-raising for the project begins in earnest on Oct. 6, when the school plans a gala event at the 1333 W. Argyle St. building, where party-goers are encouraged to dress up as Chaplin, Swanson or other Essanay actors. At that event, the Chicago-based architectural firm Johnson & Lasky will issue a 150-page historical structures report on the Essanay renovation plan, which will help college officials determine the ultimate expense for the project.
"It will be a significant cost outlay, probably in seven figures," said Sund, who added that it would take two to three years to finish the project after fund-raising is completed.
But it's a project that has full support from city officials because it goes hand-in-hand with the City Hall-endorsed plan to create an Uptown Entertainment District, centered around the long-awaited renovation of the long-shuttered Uptown Theatre. Owner Jam Productions hopes to fully renovate the Uptown by the end of 2015, provided they can raise that $70 million to maintain that historic venue.
"Visitors are starting to look around the neighborhood, and they're starting to notice the Essanay buildings," said Ald. James Cappleman, in whose 46th Ward the buildings are located (though they will move to the 47th Ward once the latest ward remap goes into effect later this year).
"Hearing that Chaplin once shot movies here, that helps promote the entertainment district," Cappleman said.
Cappleman says that the Essanay buildings wouldn't be eligible for any tax-increment financing because they are located outside Uptown's TIF district. But he said the project could be eligible for other tax breaks to because of their landmark status.
"Other city financing is also open for exploration, although we certainly have to prioritize these projects," Cappleman added. "The city is in a budget crunch, but we also understand how important it is to draw people into this neighborhood to discover its rich history."
School officials said they began talking about the restoration project two years ago. "We would see tour buses stop in front of the building for a minute, then keep going," Sund said. "So we said to ourselves that we've got to start bringing some of these people in to see the facility."
Even though much of the original interior has been gutted to serve the college, visitors can still see some of the building's original features if they walk inside. The school's auditorium in the 1333 W. Argyle St. building, now called the Charlie Chaplin auditorium, still has the feel of a movie studio, with the original catwalk and lighting grid structures hanging from the ceiling. And in that building's basement, one can see two vaults where Essanay stored its combustible nitrate and safety film stocks.
And visitors walking to the rear of the building can imagine Chaplin or Beery walking through Essanay's stage doors, which still exist, along with an ancient staircase adjacent to those doors.