When your architect has the star wattage of Jeanne Gang, it's not easy to remain in the "quiet stage" of a major fundraising campaign for a new building. Not when speculative visual notions are showing up in an exhibition, "Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects," at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The budget for the project (for the building and a desired endowment) is likely to be in the range of $30 million, said executive director Kathryn Lipuma, with completion likely in three to four years. The building would rise on the Tudor Court site of the Glencoe Woman's Library Club, which, unusually, would continue to own the land after its building was demolished. Writers' Theatre would be granted a 99-year lease, with a rent of $1 a year.
The fascinating Gang renderings make one thing clear: Nothing quite like this has been built on the North Shore, and it's likely to change the architectural and cultural face of Glencoe. The building alone, it seems reasonable to predict, would attract cultural tourists.
Historically, North Shore communities have been less than hospitable to arts development. When Northlight Theatre floated a plan in 1994 to mount its season in Wilmette, after the demise of the Coronet Theatre in Evanston, its former home and a suburb that has built nothing new for the arts in a generation, Northlight faced furious objections from neighbors. It wasn't even trying to erect a building; it just wanted to present some shows at National Louis University. Northlight ended up in Skokie.
But times have changed, and the economic impact of arts development is better understood. Writers' has proved itself to be a good, classy neighbor, and its established location, near the suburb's business district and not far from the Metra/Union Pacific train tracks, has long been an active public space. The Woman's Library Club land is slightly elevated from the rest of the Glencoe downtown, an asset that Gang clearly intends to exploit in the new building to rise in its place.
Unlike the major arts venues that have been built downtown in recent years, Gang's project for Writers' is centered on smaller theaters. There are a pair of venues in the plan: one with about 200 seats and another with about half that many. That could, of course, change. Even a 200-seat main stage roughly doubles Writers' current capacity.
In these ideas, one can see a strikingly close relationship with the outdoors, very different from, say, the Goodman or Steppenwolf theaters. You can see a variety of possibilities for performances outside of the theaters themselves.
The Glencoe building now betrays little or nothing of what goes on inside. In Gang's design, the structure and language of the theater, including its catwalks and other private spaces, is immediately apparent. In that regard, Gang's designs have some resemblance to a much smaller version of the relatively new Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
Writers' Theatre has made no secret of its desires to make Glencoe more of an upscale, festival-like town: an arts destination with several venues, along with high-end restaurants and bookstores.
How much of this will happen remains to be seen. When it comes to funding, Writers' has (among other economic challenges) to fight the notion that its famously affluent community can afford to pay for everything. But the arts enhance lives and children's opportunities everywhere. And when it comes to attracting visitors with money to spend in its businesses, Glencoe's proximity to, and Metra train from, Chicago will offer formidable advantages over more remote towns.
It will be interesting to see what rises, when it rises, who pays for it and who comes to see the result.