At an event scheduled for Wednesday evening at the Art Institute of Chicago, Writers Theatre of Glencoe is to announce that it has raised $22 million, enough to begin construction on a new, $28 million two-theater complex for downtown Glencoe, built from the ground up and designed by renowned Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and her Studio Gang Architects.
The announcement is remarkable in several ways. A contemporary building designed with a significant nod both to the Tudor-style architecture of many North Shore homes and to the classical roots of much Writers programming, the new theater is likely to be a transformative building for the affluent community of Glencoe. It will be visible from both the Metra line and the arterial Green Bay Road and will be an economic generator for the village's sleepy downtown, perhaps at the expense of neighboring suburbs with a much longer history of involvement with the arts. The complex will be Gang's first major arts building, and thus her entry into a high-profile arena often associated with the leading likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas.
Such a building will change for good a homegrown suburban theater that currently performs in the back of a bookstore and in a room rented from the Woman's Library Club of Glencoe.
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- 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL 60022, USA
And — perhaps most remarkably of all — the money has been raised almost entirely from wealthy individuals, several of whom have made multimillion-dollar gifts.
There are no corporations or foundations on the list of current major donors, as is de rigueur for such projects, which typically rely on a mix of different kinds of philanthropy. Not in this case. The new Writers Theatre will be funded by Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols; Alec and Jennifer Litowitz; Gillian and Ellis Goodman; Mary Winton Green and the Green family; and Stephanie and Bill Sick. With the addition of one anonymous donor of $2 million, an elite group of six families has come up with $16 million in pledges, more than half the cost of the building, which is slated for a groundbreaking next fall. Completion is planned for early 2016.
"We believe in this project very strongly and wanted to give it some credibility," said Alexandra Nichols, whose early family gift of $5 million surely did just that. "We think this will be transformational for Glencoe and the North Shore. Glencoe has always been a little bit sleepy. This will bring in restaurants and retail, yet the building also is very compatible with the community."
Nichols also said that she has supported Writers from its beginnings two decades ago, when a classics-loving Chicago actor named Michael Halberstam started doing intimate shows in a little room behind Books on Vernon in downtown Glencoe. Halberstam quickly figured out that he would need philanthropic support for his vision of intimate suburban theater. (Writers Theatre began with an economically injudicious theater of 60 seats or fewer and now has a main stage, at the Woman’s Library Club, seating around 110.) Indeed, most of the major donors, many of whom also sit on boards and donate to Chicago-area institutions, have long relationships with Halberstam's very personal early endeavor.
"My wife, Gillian, has been involved for 15 years or more," said Ellis Goodman. "We really feel like we are part of the show. And we like the excitement of being part of something that is moving as fast as Writers is moving. It feels like Steppenwolf in the early days."
Steppenwolf moved into the city of Chicago after it outgrew its Highland Park basement. Now a world-famous theater, Steppenwolf also is in the early stages of a campaign to fund an expansion in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. On Tuesday, its managing director, David Hawkanson, tipped his hat to Writers and the amount of money that has flowed into the Glencoe theater's coffers from individuals.
"I think this is an incredible accomplishment," Hawkanson said. "If you look at the major arts buildings that have been built in Chicago, a significant part of the capital costs have been funded by city or state money. Writers didn't have that tool to use. But they have realized the strength of their environment and their constituency. Their model is unique."
It is a model carefully cultivated by the gregarious and charming Halberstam, 47, Writers' founder and current artistic director. The staff now has grown to include executive director Kate Lipuma and others. In a recent interview at Tribune Tower, Halberstam said that his donors "are people we've engaged with over a very long time" and that this new building will allow his company "to do what we are doing now, only better."
Halberstam, who has made it a priority to attract the top tier of Chicago actors, also spoke of the benefits of more and larger rehearsal space, more involvement with the local community and school districts and a chance to build on the theater's still fledgling national presence. "This really is the right time," added Lipuma. "It's not so much about a building as a home."
This home is likely to attract attention. Although its theaters will still be small (250 and 99 seats at the most), Gang's buildings (like the Aqua tower in Chicago) invariably have attracted attention, and this design is hardly conventional. Most notable, perhaps, will be Gang's attempts to integrate an arts center into a village of large homes and small businesses in a pocket downtown.
"We have been referring to it as a theater in the park," said Larry Levin, the president of the village of Glencoe. "There were neighbors who had questions. But this project has enjoyed overwhelming support from every aspect of Glencoe."
Although the North Shore is full of arts supporters, other suburbs have been less hospitable to the arts. When Northlight Theatre attempted to set up shop in Wilmette, residents objected and the project stalled. Highland Park's resident theater, Apple Tree Theatre, was allowed to fall by the wayside after the death of its founder. And although Evanston, far larger than Glencoe, has commissioned many studies and even has an unrestored theater in the middle of its downtown, not much substantial has been done for the arts, except at Northwestern University. Of course, these suburbs have frequently cited their lack of available funding. And indeed, Glencoe is not paying for the building in any kind of major way, even if its residents and, especially, its business will reap the benefits. Those donors — some, but hardly all, of whom live within Glencoe — are the ones paying.
Levin pointed out that the approval process was easier because the present building on the site, the Woman's Library Club (where Writers has its current main stage) was already designated as a cultural center. Since that building is not considered architecturally significant, and since it increasingly became clear that it was more viable for that historic club to rent from Writers than the other way around, that made everything run smoothly. The Woman's Library Club is slated to be demolished next year; the members are to meet in a room designed by Gang.
Writers is not the first homemade Chicago-area institution to attract support from donors and be thrust by a new building into a whole different sphere of operation. There are commonalities with the trajectory of both Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Black Ensemble Theater, each still run by their founders. But Writers has achieved this in a small village. Glencoe is one of the most affluent communities in the nation — the median household income in 2011 was over $200,000. Still, the population is less than 10,000 and, traditionally, such communities are resistant to an influx of outsiders and to change in general.
In this case, though, Glencoe appears comfortable and proud of being the site of what is touted as "a world-class building," albeit one expected not to feel like an invading fortress but an open center for the arts nestled among historic homes. How well the model of serving the local community and achieving national respect will work out is a question for the future. For now, Writers appears to have gotten its building funded and supported.
"I hear all the time from leaders of other suburbs," Levin said, "who wish they had a project like this one."