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Plans for music club, restored theater bring a spark to Hyde Park

New stores theater are set be part 53rd Street revitalizatiproject which already has new Clarke's diner Harper Court project. Friday

New stores and a theater are set to be part of the 53rd Street revitalization project, which already has a new Clarke's diner and the Harper Court project. Friday, Sept 21, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:11AM

In music, timing is everything.

And the Promontory concert hall, bar and restaurant is picking the right time to open in Hyde Park.

Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, owners of the restaurant Longman & Eagle, plan to open the venue in early 2013 at 1539 E. 53rd St. Finkelman (Empty Bottle, Beauty Bar) and Golden (S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston, Union) are two of the first business owners to be involved with the 53rd Street revitalization project.

The multimillion-dollar effort is a unique partnership of the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago to revitalize an area that has seen its entertainment landscape change time and again.

Derek R.B. Douglas, vice president for civic engagement for the University of Chicago, said the university has worked with local officials and the community for several years “to find out what Hyde Park wanted for 53rd Street and how that fit in with the university’s interests. Through a series of workshops, residents concluded that 53rd Street was the natural focus for retail, dining and entertainment values the neighborhood needed. That dovetailed with the university’s interests.”

The Promontory will be in the former two-story Borders bookstore at the corner of Lake Park and 53rd. The entertainment venue and restaurant will operate from the rear and second floor of the building. The popular Chicago-based fashion retailer Akira will be in the front part of the building, which is being renovated.

The club’s eclectic booking policy will take the neighborhood back to its golden years of the mid-1950s.

In those days, the Cadillac Lounge held court at 1500 E. 55th St., and the strip’s most famous club was the Beehive Lounge at 1503 E. 55th St., with headliners like Charlie Parker (1953), Thelonious Monk (1955) and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (1955), according to the University of Chicago Library. Parker played his last Chicago gig at the Beehive.

The Promontory will be across the street from a new 12-story office tower that will house University of Chicago employees.

“That is the commercial anchor to that area,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th), who represents the district. “In the office building there will be 500 office workers, a restaurant [Chipotle Mexican Grill] and an L.A. Fitness. The Borders building is being wrapped in steel and glass so it looks like a store more than a Borders.”

The 150,000-square-foot office tower is part of a project in the former Harper Court shopping center, 5211 S. Harper, which years ago housed a popular Chances R. tavern.

Ground was broken on the new Harper Court in November. The project developer is Vermillion Development of Chicago and Danville. The 3 ½ acres of land — including buildings owned by the university and a city-owned parking lot — will house retail and a 135-room Hyatt Place Hotel slated to open in 2014, according to Burns. The office tower opens next year.

After Borders closed in March 2011, the university purchased the bookstore building that will house the Promontory.

The second floor will house the performing arts venue with a capacity of 600, or 300 seated. Finkelman said it will be programmed with “a wide variety of musical acts, catering to the diverse community of Hyde Park.” The second-floor space will also be available for private events.

The Promontory is named after Hyde Park’s iconic Promontory Point, a manmade peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan.

U. of C. spokesman Steve Kloehn said the 53rd Street revitalization project is about determining, “How can we be a part of the city that we’re named for?”

The cooperation from City Hall comes largely in approving permits for construction. The city-campus partnership is “fairly rare,” Kloehn said. Penn did some work in Philadelphia [in the University City neighborhood, which includes a professional dance company and the Institute of Contemporary Art]. But this kind of effort from a university to revive a neighborhood is unusual.”

In the early 2000s, the University of Illinois at Chicago expanded into the historic Maxwell Street Market, helping to create today’s upscale stretch of South Halsted.

By the end of the year, the University of Chicago will reopen the 97-year-old Harper Theater, just north of 53rd Street. The 400-seat theater has a new interior with four screens that will show a mix of art and first-run films. The New 400 Theatres in Rogers Park will operate the Harper Theater. The university purchased the theater in 2002.

In September 2011, the Five Guys burger chain was the first business to open as part of the 53rd Street revitalization project. Five Guys is at 1456 E. 53rd St., a block away from the Promontory.

“Five Guys is doing gangbusters,” Burns said. “The thing about the Mid South Side is that we’re so starved for retail and restaurants that the people who come down here do extremely well.”

After the historic Checkerboard Lounge at 423 E. 43rd St. closed in 2003, owner L.C. Thurman moved the blues club to a 200-seat location at 5201 S. Harper in a deal he cut with the university.

Blues great Buddy Guy opened the original Checkerboard in 1972, and the tiny venue with the big jukebox saw impromptu appearances from the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the late great Black Lone Ranger.

But big-shot cameos at the New Checkerboard Lounge, on the north edge of Harper Court? Not so much.

“It’s rough footing right now,” Thurman, 74, said last week. “I was planning to leave, but everyone telling me is to stay. The hotel will be next to me. I’m not making any money. The only way I can make money is private parties with a DJ. On Oct. 12 and 19 I do have Vance Kelly and the Backstreet Blues Band, but I mostly have DJs.” Kelly played at the original Checkerboard.

Burns said, “Hopefully we’re going to connect Harper Avenue from 53rd Street to 51st Street and that will help the New Checkerboard. When there’s a construction project nearby it makes things difficult. But they’re hanging on.”

Recent years have not been kind to iconic Hyde Park nightspots.

In its latter years Ciral’s House of Tiki & Cocktail Lounge was a block away from the Promontory at 1612 E. 53rd St. The bamboo-rafted tiki bar closed in 2000 after 42 years of smooth sailing.

But the Woodlawn Tap, 1172 E. 55th, perseveres as Hyde Park’s iconic tavern. It closed in 1999 after the death of longtime owner Jimmy Wilson but reopened in 2000. Notable drinkers there include blues great Paul Butterfield, anthropologist Margaret Mead and poet Dylan Thomas. The Woodlawn Tap offers live blues with no cover charge at 4:30 p.m. Sundays, followed by 9 p.m. live jazz sets.

As the Promontory emerges, new restaurants open and the New Checkerboard rebounds (maybe), how will the neighborhood tackle parking?

Kloehn said Harper Court will have more than 400 parking spots and the university owns a surface lot behind the Promontory that will provide about 50 spaces. Burns said, “Parking won’t be a problem. We don’t have permit parking like a lot of other Chicago neighborhoods.”

But permit parking is a sure sign of gentrification in Chicago.

“A lot of people in Hyde Park ride bikes and walk,” he continued. “We have a robust transportation system, and we’re looking at putting in some sort of shuttle or trolley to move people around the corridor. My hope would be to not do permit parking.”

Longtime record store owner Sam Greenberg, who operated Dr. Wax stores near both Northwestern University in Evanston and the University of Chicago, said his most loyal customers were Hyde Parkers.

Said the alderman, “People are very loyal in Hyde Park ... . People appreciate folks who invest in the community.”

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