After seeing some of the city’s most beautiful greystone houses and learning about medical pioneer Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, we’ve saved the best for last in our three part series: The Forum. Mostly vacant for decades and facing demolition, its fate changed in the Fall of 2011 when the building was rescued by Urban Juncture.
The first signs of life in this historic 19th century building will be a cafe and art gallery next year. Later, the ballroom will come back to life as a live music performance venue.
Before looking at some exciting new developments and plans for The Forum, let’s take a look at the history of the South Side ballroom and meeting space.
At 114 Years Old, One of the Oldest Ballrooms in Chicago
In the 1920s, there was a boom in ballroom construction as a result of new musical movements, jazz in particular. Built in 1889, The Forum building long predates that era. Easily among the earliest, it’s possible that this is the oldest still-standing hardwood floor ballroom in Chicago. Although not currently in use, it predates almost all other hardwood floor ballrooms listed on Wikipedia.
A Long History as a Community Use Space
The area along Grand Boulevard south of the Loop (now S. King Drive) saw an influx of African American residents arriving in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period of demographic transition, Forum Hall retained its original purpose as a dance hall. Forum Hall was the name of the ballroom and meeting space within The Forum complex.
It continued serving as a community meeting space and a place for cultural enrichment through dance instruction, dinner parties, and celebrations. This is eloquently described in the 1983 book An Autobiography of Black Jazz by Dempsey Travis:
Among the ballrooms available within the Black Belt south of 39th Street was the Forum Hall at 324 East 43rd Street. 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 “In the Dark.”
Early Meeting Space for the Communist Party
The Forum building is also a distinguished stop on the Chicago Labor Trail:
One of the most important spaces for radical labor and civil rights groups during the Depression years. On separate occasions, the International Labor Defense (ILD), NNC, Communist Party, and the South Side Labor Council met here.
Birthplace of Blues and Jazz Legends
Located on 43rd Street, Honorary Muddy Waters Drive, it was juxtaposed against some of the most important music venues in the city. Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge (now destroyed) was originally located not far from The Forum on 43rd.
Although it didn’t have quite the same notoriety as some of the blues and jazz clubs nearby, many world-renowned musicians played or got their musical start here.
Also chronicled in An Autobiography of Black Jazz was how this old grand ballroom played a part in the budding career of legendary musician Floyd Campbell:
The late 1930s and early ’40s were the heyday of club dances in Chicago. We played four and five gigs a week at places like Bacon’s Casino, Savoy Ballroom, Warwick Hall, Forum Hall, the Binga Arcade Ballroom, the Vincennes Hotel Grand Ballroom, and Blue Heaven Hall.
The book also contained an account of jazz legend Milt Hinton:
I remember specifically that one of my first gigs was at the Forum Hall, located on 43rd and Calumet. We used to play for a percentage of the gross receipts and I would carry my tuba and fiddle on the streetcar to that gig, which wasn’t very far from my house at 4145 South Vincennes Avenue. However, it was a long distance for me to have to carry both instruments.
Nat King Cole was another legendary musician to play here, and he is featured as the main image on the front facade portraits.
Elks Lodge Home
Continuing the tradition as a meeting space for the community, it was also once home to the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, as illustrated by this fading door graphic.
A Brief Appearance in The Sting
In the 1970s The Forum building and the old 43rd Street CTA station were featured in The Sting, an Academy Award-winning movie featuring Robert Redford. In it, Redford’s character Johnny Hooker is chased out of a bar in the The Forum building, and is chased up the CTA platform and makes a quick getaway in the neighborhood.
That part of the building featured in the movie is still set up for use as a bar today.
The Forum’s Decline
This brief movie appearance was one of the last high points for The Forum. Although many sections of the property served retail and other purposes in the 1970s, the ballroom itself saw little use and the property began a gradual decline along with the neighborhood.
This is illustrated in the photos above and below. Above, in the 1970s, it was home to a clothing store and rescue mission.
By the 1980s, the clothing store was gone, and the rescue mission replaced by a liquor store. The left entryway pediment disappeared, and the ballroom’s windows were boarded up. Although partially occupied, The Forum had now lost its luster.
Decades of neglect caused significant structural problems inside and out.
Rescued From Demolition
A few years ago, The Forum was facing demolition as the exterior brick started to crumble and the building posed a danger to passersby. Seeing the potential of the only surviving structure that played a part in the legendary music scene of 43rd Street (Honorary Muddy Waters Drive), Urban Juncture purchased the building with the intent of restoring its purpose as a performance, hospitality, and meeting space.
Spearheading The Forum’s Revival: Urban Juncture
Urban Juncture is the community development firm that organized the community-wide effort to bring back The Forum.
Since the Fall of 2011, hundreds of volunteers have come forward to help restore this icon through clean up efforts, historical research, musical performance, redevelopment planning, and more.
After a significant cleaning effort by volunteers, the original ballroom remains in good condition. Other partners of the restoration effort include:
- Revival Arts Collective
- IIT Urban Activators
- Third World Press
- Bronzeville Retail Initiative
- South Side Community Arts Center
- Friends of The Forum and The Forum History Team
Leading Urban Juncture’s efforts is Bernard Loyd, a long time resident of the neighborhood.
I think this initiative is important because, for much of the 20th century, The Forum was one of Bronzeville’s pivotal meeting, performance, and retail facilities. Today, it remains one of the few major institutions we have been able to save from the wrecking ball – and the key structure on historic 43rd Street. Bringing back The Forum is critical to rebuilding 43rd Street and, if done right, can play a key role in creating a vibrant Bronzeville of the 21st century.
Coming in 2014: The Forum Cafe
The first step in the journey of restoring The Forum to its former glory will take the shape of a two-story cafe and gallery space, called The Forum Cafe:
The Forum Cafe is designed to provide patrons a unique hospitality experience combining outstanding cuisine with an immersion in art, music, and history and the opportunity for individual work/study and small group meetings. It will serve a wide range of teas and coffees as well as delicious, fresh pastries, sandwiches, and other light fare. Menu items, as well as select, themed merchandise and visual and acoustic backdrops, will honor notables of The Forum, the Black Metropolis, and Bronzeville.
Work begins on The Forum Cafe in the second quarter of next year. Longer term plans will see the ballroom to restored to its original purpose as a live music and performance venue.
Bringing back The Forum will be a long process. If you’d like to get involved in the restoration of this Bronzeville icon, you can contact Aaisha Haykal (email@example.com), the convener of The Forum History Team, or Mecca Brooks (firstname.lastname@example.org), Retail Project Manager for The Forum. You can also reach out to Urban Juncture.
You can also follow the progress of The Forum via their Facebook page.
- 43rd Street Bronzeville Walking Tour, Part 1: Greystones
- 43rd Street Bronzeville Walking Tour, Part 2: ‘Doctor Dan’
- The Forum – Bronzeville (Official Facebook page)
- Developer seeks second act for Bronzeville’s historic Forum Hall (Lee Bey/WBEZ)
- Bring Back the Forum (See Potential Chicago)
- Developing Vibrant Retail in Bronzeville (PDF, Metropolitan Planning Council)